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Like Vanilla and Chocolate

By Kit Heathcock

“That saying – it’s so vanilla, meaning boring, I don’t understand it!” says Katelyn Allegra. “Vanilla’s a really expensive spice and it’s super complex, over 350 compounds in it. When it’s good it’s amazing.” I’m in her home kitchen chatting to her and her husband, Antonino, all about their chocolate journeys, how they met, innovation and disruption in direct trade cocoa and much more for a Daily Maverick article (read it here when you have fifteen minutes and a cup of tea in your hand). We’ve moved on from Antonino’s pioneering of direct trade chocolate in Africa and are talking about her online shop at The Kate Tin where she stocks the baking ingredients that she likes to use in her recipe development – really good baking chocolate was the starting point, developed especially for her by Antonino, and premium grade vanilla beans.

Katelyn and Antonino mixing chocolate
Photograph by Patrick Heathcock

There’s as much story to the vanilla as there is to the chocolate and I didn’t have space for it all in the main article, so here are some bonus excerpts from our conversation with some of the vanilla back story.

“On my website I have very loyal customer base that are big home bakers,” Katelyn says. “I started it in 2019 with the baking chocolate and because it was doing well I wanted to add more products. I was struggling to get hold of good vanilla beans. Here in South Africa we just have dry brittle things that are really expensive.”

Of course, being married to Antonino, she didn’t just research an existing importer of quality vanilla. Together they went direct to the farmers. “We found a group of farmers in Uganda who produce amazing vanilla. Their beans are nice and plump and juicy.”

Antonino, as he’d previously done with the cocoa farmers in Tanzania when working out his direct-trade concept for Afrikoa, worked with these vanilla farmers to improve their product. “They would WhatsApp me a video of the beans,” he says. “I’d say, pick a little bit earlier as the beans are starting to split, or try to dry this way, or don’t use plastic.” Vanilla beans need to be sweated as part of the fermentation process and plastic makes it faster, but isn’t good for the final flavour. Apparently vanilla beans shouldn’t ever be kept in plastic. Linen or wax paper is best for storing them.

“Those little changes for us means we can have real vanilla,” Antonino says. “For the farmer just a few small adjustments mean that more than half of the crop doesn’t end up at a lower end price because of split beans, or not being properly fermented. Now the majority of their harvest is premium quality and so they make more money from their crop.”

Vanilla, like cocoa, is completely inedible in its raw state, needing a multi-step process of drying and fermentation “It’s another one of those magical ingredients… who first decided to do all that to make it edible?” Katelyn says.

Vanilla pods
Photograph by Katelyn Allegra

When Antonino was working with the farmers on fine-tuning their fermentation methods, they would send him different samples of vanilla pods fermented in slightly different ways for his feedback. “We thought, how can we test it?” he says. “We’re not scientists. So we did the most pastry chef thing, we tasted it. I added a scientific approach of controlled testing, warming up 100ml milk in several different containers, putting the same amount of vanilla in each, infusing for the same time and tasting the result. And we could already taste massive differences between a and b and c.”

Now the resulting premium vanilla is available from Katelyn’s online shop. It may cost slightly more than the standard cheap stuff (actully not all that much more) but it’s worth it in the resulting flavour. Katelyn says, “If you know how to use vanilla, it’s not that expensive. You can get 3 or 4 uses out of each pod. You split it and use the seeds in a panna cotta or a crème brulee. You then take the pod and put it into either some vodka or some vegetable glycerine to make your own vanilla extract. That can then be used 5ml at a time in a recipe. And once it has infused you take the pod out, roast it and grind it to make vanilla sugar, or use it as burnt vanilla powder, it’s delicious. So one pod stretches that far.”

Chopping vanilla
Photograph by Katelyn Allegra

You probably don’t really want to know what’s in the vanilla essence you buy in supermarkets, but Antonino is happy to talk about food ingredients all day, “It is vanillin, which comes from wood chips. Especially the inside of wine barrels. It’s a compound in wood that crystallises. If you take the cheapest vanilla essence and put in an open plastic container in the fridge, it dries out. You’ll find after a week, just crystals. Nothing to do with the real pods at all.”

As for the baking chocolate, we later went through to Katelyn’s studio kitchen and had a taste of a few different varieties. It made the chocoholic in me happy – melting to a fabulous glossy texture and smooth creamy flavour that tasted as good as couverture chocolate without the hassle involved, no tempering needed, just melting and then cooling to set as glossy and snappy as you could wish.

Daily Maverick TGIFood

Read the rest of our conversation in the full article for Daily Maverick TGIFood -

The Kate Tin

Find The Kate Tin shop here