Heilala Vanilla

Heilala Vanilla’s origins began in 2002 as an aid project founded by New Zealander, John Ross, and his family.  We caught up with the good folks at Heilala to learn more about why they what they do.

SFB: What made you decide to go into vanilla farming?

Heilala:  For a significant birthday, our founder John Ross (a retired New Zealand farmer) sailed to Vava’u, in the Kingdom of Tonga on a boat he’d built himself. He fell in love with the place and the people and when Cyclone Waka caused extensive damage to the Vava’u island group, he traveled back with friends from his Rotary Club to help with the clean-up. As a way to thank John for his efforts, a local family gifted him a plot of land in exchange for him using it to provide employment for those in the village. On a previous trip to Tonga, John had discovered vanilla orchids running wild and after some research and visits to established vanilla farms in Réunion Island, Tahiti, and Madagascar, he got to work on his own plot and subsequently partnered with other growers throughout Tonga to establish vanilla plantations

SFB:  Your vanilla is different than the stuff that’s commercially available.  Is it harder to do things your way?  Why do you do it anyway?

Heilala:  Home bakers and chefs today are demanding to know more about the ingredients they’re consuming, they want to know exactly what’s in their food, how it was sourced and produced. Heilala’s transparent supply chain, clean label ingredients and positive social impact to local grower communities along with support from customers inspire us to continue growing vanilla best practice.

SFB:  Anything you wish people (chefs, consumers) realized about your product that they might not know?

Heilala:  As one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world, there are lots of challenges growing vanilla! The orchid flower must be pollinated by hand and then the beans must be blanched, sweated, dried and cured. Climatic conditions play a major role as vanilla grows best in hot, humid conditions, and the plants require moderate rainfall evenly distributed through 10 months of the year, in order to thrive.

SFB:  What do you wish people knew about the commercial/commodity/mass-market version of your product that they probably don’t?

Heilala:  Typically vanilla is traded as a commodity similar to cocoa and coffee and can go through over ten sets of traders to reach the customer. which makes Heilala unique as a vanilla producer that grows, manufactures and markets the spice itself.

SFB:  What are your hopes for the future of your field?

Heilala:  In 2018, we completed 100 acres of vanilla planting in Tonga, which will enable us to continue to positively impact our grower communities in Tonga into the future. The growth will result in increased employment, particularly of local women in Tonga. As a result, there is an instilled sense of purpose and pride, which has a powerful effect on their independence, families, economic growth and the well-being of their communities. Heilala has a goal for 200 women to be employed in the Vanilla Industry in Tonga by 2022.

SFB:  What is the most satisfying part of what you do?

Heilala:  It’s always satisfying to see Heilala being used by a top bakery or restaurant and we were extremely excited when Flour bakery started using Heilala Vanilla. Each time a new customer comes on board a small group of villages in the South Pacific continues to be supported and have opportunities and options that they would not have had without the vanilla industry in Tonga. This is what gets us out of bed every day and is the most satisfying part!

Heilala Vanilla Comes Straight From The Source

Grown on rich, Pacific soil and dried under the Polynesian sun, the world’s best vanilla is an all-natural product of a perfect climate.  With a highly-scientific, unrefined process (cold-pressed, slow-extract), and an artisan work culture of the hard-working local farmers and families, Heilala Vanilla is innovating outdated Vanilla products and production.

Many know orchids to be a delicate, fickle flower, but few realize that Vanilla is a genus of the very same plant and that beans take 3 to 5 years to grow. Our farmers are dedicated craftsmen, tending to each plant with in-depth wisdom and expertise.

What makes Heilala Vanilla different?

  • The freshness and quality of Heilala Vanilla beans set them apart. Heilala Vanilla Beans are glossy, dark brown and supple—all indications of quality and freshness.
  • Heilala Vanilla is traceability from their plantations straight to the consumer’s pantry ensuring that there is s no unnecessary handling.
  • Heilala Vanilla partners with growers throughout Tonga to provide employment along with access to running water, housing, and facilities for education.


Masalu Halahala, 65, a vanilla farmer from central ‘Eua.

Words and photos courtesy of Heilala Vanilla

By Diego Maldonado

Iacopi Farms

We are super excited to be featuring these delicious dried beans from Iacopi Farms!  Well-known by chefs on the west coast, these varieties from Half Moon Bay are delicious, creamy and rarely split.  The flavor and texture are A++.

Now Featuring:

Cranberry Beans

Borlotti Beans

Gigante Beans

Butter Beans

all in 10-lb bags.
Iacopi Farms Bio_2019
By Specialty Administrator

The Japanese Pantry II

The Japanese Pantry Part II: New Products 

New Year, new awesome products.  New items below, link to the full lineup at the bottom of the page.

From master vinegar maker, Iio Jozo, comes Purple Sweet Potato Vinegar with Honey.  If it sounds like it has a lot going on, that’s because it does.  First, they make a sake from purple sweet potatoes.  Then, they turn it into vinegar.  Finally, they finish it with honey.  The process takes two years.  Tasting almost like an expertly crafted shrub, but more intense, the uses of this vary from the bar to the pastry station, to Momofuku’s vegetable cookbook, page 178, in a recipe for Nishi Sweet Potatoes.  Also, it’s amazing. 500 ml bottle.  Note: we will have a non-sweetened version (no honey) available as well, if you’d like that please be very specific on your order-thanks!

Okinawa Brown Sugar, also known as Okinawan black sugar.  This treat from Hateruma island is sugar, with terroir.  This almost-savory, almost salty dark brown sugar tastes a lot like molasses, because it’s essentially boiled sugar cane, barely refined.  High in iron and potassium, it’s sometimes touted as a health food.  But for our purposes, the thing to know is that it’s complex, delicious and perfect for those who like their sweets to lean a little savory.  Any recipe utilizing this sugar should be showcasing it, not covering it up.  500 gram pouch.

Roasted Golden Sesame Paste, from Wadaman, is made from unhulled, roasted sesame seeds.  There are three types of sesame seeds in the world- white, gold, and black.  The golden seeds, from Turkey, are roasted by master sesame roaster Wadaman before being ground to a rich paste.  Rich and full-bodied with a strong mid-palate presence.    One kilo pouch.

Smoked Soy Sauce, from Yubeta.  This sauce, squeezed out by the drop from the bottle, is beautifully smoked over cherry wood, and while the smoke is front and present, the care and nuance put into this will impress you.  Anywhere you’d want to add a few drops of smoke and umami.  210 ml bottle.

Yuzu Shichimi Togarashi.  This very special togarashi is yuzu-dominant, thanks to the dried yuzu peel.  The blend itself is expertly made.  Speaking from personal experience, this was pretty amazing on Nantucket bay scallops and would complement other fish as well.  With its citrus and chili aspects, it’s a natural for ceviches and crudos.  10-gram pouch.

Sansho Pepper.  A member of the prickly ash family, sansho is similar to Sichuan peppercorn and green in color.  This is actually a blend of three different sansho peppers, and its effect is direct and precise.  The balance is spot-on, and the numbing presence is there but not overwhelming. If Sichuan peppercorns are a machete, this is a scalpel.  15-gram pouch.

White Tamari.  Made from only wheat, Japanese sea salt, koji, and mountain spring water.  This differs from dark tamari in a few ways: it has no soy, it is gluten-FULL, and it is great to use when you want the umami-richness of soy without the dark notes.  The nose is malty and distinctly evocative of white miso.  This is a great pantry staple to have on hand for all kinds of purposes, especially raw fish, more delicate mushrooms, finishing sauces or soups, or anywhere you might think of sneaking in a little white miso. From Nitto Jozo, who has been making this since 1938.

Liquid Shio Koji.  Perhaps it’s cliche to call this umami in a bottle, so maybe we should call it a cousin to msg you can feel good about.  But that doesn’t quite cover it either.  It can be your salt, your msg, your brine, your secret pantry staple you use to build layers of flavor, the thing you add to your mayo to finish it, the thing you brine your fish in before you smoke it, the thing you marinate your chicken in before you grill it, the thing you add to your soup to season it….guys liquid shio koji is like six bucks a bottle and it’s the bomb, just grab one.  Basically, it’s shio koji (which is usually thick and porridge-like) pushed through a sake press, so that it’s ready to use.

Salty Black Sesame Seeds.  From Wadaman, the sesame roaster you’ve read so much about here.  In this case, they take premium black sesame seeds sourced from Bolivia and brine them before roasting them, resulting in crisp nutty seeds with a salty pop that is great for finishing legumes and dips, as a fleur de sel alternative, or frankly just snacking on. Also in house: regular (non-salty) roasted white and gold sesame seeds from Wadaman.

Click here for More Japanese Pantry

By Diego Maldonado

Curio Spice Blends

We are very excited to offer a selection of handcrafted spice blends, from Claire Cheney, proprietor of Curio Spice Shop in Cambridge.

We are offering these spice blends in a wholesale format, geared towards professional chefs who want to incorporate her unique spice blends into their kitchens.  Imagine for a moment devoting yourself to traveling the world, cultivating your own fair-practice sources for herbs and spices, importing them yourself in micro-batches, and then building a spice lab where you tell the story of a place or moment with the blends you create.

We caught up with Claire recently and discussed the origins of Curio Spice.

SFB:  What made you decide to start creating these unique spice blends?

Claire:  I started blending out of a passion for food and farming and the desire to create unique flavors that celebrate spice origins and stories. Sadly most spices are just dusty commodities in today’s global economy, so by sourcing rare and intensely flavorful spices from socially/environmentally responsible farms, I hope to change the way folks think about and use spices. While “pre-made” spice blends can get a bad rep for being bland or predictable, I’m happy that our blends are original and distinctive, with ingredients like pickled cherry blossoms, locally grown verbena or mastic resin.

SFB:  Why spices, as opposed to something else?

Claire:  I originally wanted to write full time, and actually got into spices through my research for a book on saffron. My other passion is natural perfume, which has helped hone my sense of smell; I studied with esteemed perfumer Mandy Aftel who taught me a lot about olfaction. But mostly I love to cook and eat and talk about food all the time and a career in spice makes this possible.

SFB:  Your products are different than much of the what’s commercially available.  What experience/person inspired you to do things this way?  Is it harder to do things your way?  Why do you do it anyway?

Claire:  When I was 18 I worked with pigs on a farm in Italy. Everything we did was rooted in tradition, even if the methods were slow and a bit inefficient. Later, when I worked on a saffron farm in Greece, I learned the beauty of slow, small-scale production (as well as why saffron is so expensive). The ‘Slow Food’ culture is more the norm in Europe than in the U.S. but I enjoy being a part of the movement here. I use this sentiment with my spice production, so from the very beginning I hand pick specific flavors based on the terroir of a region, import them in small quantities according to the season, then blend them in small batches at the last possible minute to obtain the most flavor. Yes, it’s much harder but everything ends up with more robust flavor and charisma.

SFB:  Anything you wish chefs and consumers realized about your product that they might not know?

Claire:  “Freshness” might not be a word always associated with spices since they’re dried, but most spices arrive by the container load to New Jersey having been harvested and ground a year (or more) before they arrive. Ours don’t. We source and import super small batches of whole spices (including herbs from local, medicinal herb farms) as close as possible to their harvest date so we can provide you with an exceptionally fresh product.

SFB:  What do you wish people realized about the commercial/commodity/mass- or factory-produced version of your product that they probably don’t?

Claire:  Since most spices are pre-ground and irradiated in the country of origin, they’ve lost a lot, if not all, of their aromatics. The reason most spices are pre-ground is to ensure that when they reach the U.S., the FDA can accept them since all the foreign material (dirt, hair, rocks, bugs, etc.) has been ground up with the spice and is undetectable. But you still eat it if you use these mass-produced pre-ground spices.

SFB:  What are your hopes for the future of your field?

Claire:  I hope that as a business we can continue to honor farmers who grow excellent spices in a sustainable manner and help grow this specialty industry. Spices, like coffee and chocolate, come from many impoverished nations around the world. In choosing to source directly and ethically, we are upholding values that can improve livelihoods and (hopefully) lessen the impact of climate change. My hope is that chefs and home cooks recognize that paying a bit more money and attention to using spices that are sourced ethically and blended artfully (like ours!) will make a big difference to their food and to the folks who produce them.

Since I’m all about the stories that spices tell, I love hearing how chefs use the blends to create delicious food. I am so happy that what I make is not the end product but the beginning of something great.



Edo Spice – Japanese citrus & chile seasoning

Ourall new signature blend combines chilies, citrus and rare and invigorating sansho pepper from Japan. Edo (rhymes with ‘meadow’) refers to the historic name of Tokyo, as well as the ‘Edo period’ between 1615 and 1860, when there was great economic growth in Japan. This blend, with its bright, hot flavors and nutty, umami notes is inspired by the traditional Japanese 7 spice (shichimi togarashi) which is believed to have first been assembled in kitchens during the Edo period.
Enjoy this whimsical, dimensional blend simply on top of noodles, rice or veggies, or try making a smashed edamame dip with a bit of garlic and sesame oil to serve as a tasty appetizer with crackers.

Black sesame, orange peel, Japones chilies, poppy seed, wild nori, sea lettuce, dulse, sansho, yuzu, pickled cherry blossom. 


Aegean Salt – Cyprus sea salt with lemon, thyme & mastic

The Aegean sea lies between Greece and Turkey and is home to the island of Chios, where the spice mastic is harvested almost exclusively. This blend combines delicate, crunchy Cypriot salt with the piney scent of mastiha resin, thyme, and lemon peel. Perfect for adding to a breadcrumb topping for fish, or for roasted vegetables, dips, dressings or even a bloody Mary.

Cyprus salt / lemon / thyme / mastic


Fleur Spice – A fresh blend of pink pepper, hibiscus & rose

Fleur spice is inspired by the scent of spring when the earth thaws and a peppery, plant and blossom-filled fragrance fills the air. Pink pepper brings a bright, floral quality balanced by the citrusy quality of hibiscus and the intoxicating scent of rose. Delicious as a rub on salmon, lamb or duck, and beautiful as a “coating” for a log of goat cheese. Also delicious with rice & grain salads, strawberries, yogurt and ice cream.

Hibiscus*, pink pepper, anise, fennel, rose petals, coriander, spearmint, cardamom, lavender, ylang ylang  (*Allergen warning: hibiscus is intercropped with peanuts)


Kozani Spice – Greek Saffron & Herb Blend

Greece is believed to be the ancient botanical origin of saffron. Inspired by the region of Northern Greece now famous for its saffron, this blend is an aromatic combination of herbs and spices that can be used in soups, salad dressings or sauces.  Try mixing with fresh lemon juice and spooning over fish or chicken, or toss with vegetables before roasting.

Fennel, lemon peel, bee pollen, lemon verbena, oregano, sage, Greek saffron

Supeq Spice – Spicy & Umami Seaweed Salt

“Supeq” means ocean in a Native American dialect. This blend, made from 100% New England sourced ingredients, is loaded with umami flavor. Nutrient-rich dulse seaweed is mixed with shiitake mushroom, ginger (yes, grown in Massachusetts!), nettle, and hot paprika to create a wicked delicious spice blend that’s healthy, too. Try on top of eggs or fish, mixed into kale salad or sautéed spinach, or just as a sprinkle on popcorn.

Dulse seaweed (ME), sea salt (ME), shiitake mushroom (ME), ginger (MA), paprika (MA), nettle (VT), hot chili (MA)

Descriptions: Claire Cheney
Photographs: Chattman Photography
By Diego Maldonado

The Japanese Pantry

Introducing The Japanese Pantry.

We are very excited about our new collaboration with The Japanese Pantry.  Greg Dunmore and Chris Bonomo have formed personal relationships with a handful of artisan producers and are importing handcrafted vinegar, tamari and soy products literally not seen outside Japan.

We caught up with Greg Dunmore, co-founder of The Japanese Pantry, recently to hear more about how he came to procure these ingredients.  Greg is an accomplished San Francisco chef with twenty plus years of experience. Throughout his career, he has run critically acclaimed restaurants and earned Michelin Stars. Greg’s passion for Japanese food came early on and was most visible in his last venture as chef/owner of Nojo, a San Francisco top 100 restaurant, where he created his own unique Japanese-inspired California Izakaya. Over the years of traveling to Japan Greg forged relationships with artisanal producers and is excited to help them bring their products to the US.

Specialty Foods Boston:  How did you come to start importing these artisan products?

Greg:  It was based on years of working with amazing olive oils from Italy to superb vinegar from Spain and realizing the soy sauce and sesame seeds we were using were mediocre at best.

SFB:  What made you focus on Japanese ingredients in particular?

Greg:  Since we traveled to Japan often, we discovered that there were all these amazing products that could not be found in the US.  Yet it was not until we visited Wadaman, and tasted his virgin sesame oils that I decided I wanted to import them.

SFB:  Your products are much different than the stuff that’s commercially available.  What person or experience inspired you to do things this way?

Greg:  Wadaman’s sesame oils.  Chefs have been quick to embrace them.  As soon as they taste them, they tend to jump right in.

Wadaman Farm

Wadaman Co, Ltd, in Osaka, is considered one of the best sesame roasters in Japan.  They are a fifth-generation sesame roaster that has been sourcing the best sesame seeds in the world, carefully sorting them, and roasting them for over 130 years.  The current roaster has been roasting seeds himself for 45 years, six days a week.  The seeds go through a twelve-step process before being roasted.  We are excited to introduce some of their sesame products.

Wadaman Black Sesame Oil, 500 ml.

This golden-hued oil is cold-pressed from Bolivian black sesame seeds.  Extra virgin.  Notes of vanilla and cocoa with a warm, gently nutty aroma.  This delicately roasted oil would be an excellent finishing oil for raw fish or steamed green vegetables.

Wadaman White Sesame Oil, 500 ml.

This pale golden oil is cold-pressed from white Ethiopian sesame seeds.  Extra Virgin.  Light yet luxurious mouthfeel.  Clean, pure flavor.

Wadaman Black Sesame Paste, 1 kg.

The response from chefs who have tried this product so far has been overwhelming.  This rich, nutty, smooth black sesame paste has the potential for very interesting savory and pastry applications.  Traditional as a filling for glutinous rice balls, there are many more modern adaptations cropping up:  this beautiful black and white sesame tart, for example, or black sesame ice cream (delicious, we’ve made it) black sesame macarons, black sesame pannacotta, black sesame chiffon cake, and so on.  My wish is for someone to make black sesame Oreos.  Savory-side, we have yet to see many developments but are excited to see what you all do in that space.  Tag us in your black sesame Instagram photos, and we’ll send you something cool.

Iio Jozo, in the Kyoto Prefecture, makes some of the best rice wine vinegar in Japan.  Forget what you think you know about rice vinegar.  The cheap commercial stuff you’re used to does the entire category injustice. A fifth-generation distillery is a farm to bottle operation.  First, they use organic rice from their neighbors’ farms.  Then, they make their own sake, a 45-day process.  After that, they turn their sake into vinegar.   It takes two years to go from field to bottle.  In comparison, large commercial rice wine vinegar maker turns their product around in about two days.  They also use much more rice per bottle of vinegar than commercial producers do.  Legally, in Japan rice wine vinegar must contain 40 grams of rice to make a liter.  To make a decent one, you really need 120 grams of rice per liter.  Iio Jozo uses 200 grams of rice per liter, and you can truly taste the difference.

Iio Jozo Pure Rice Wine Vinegar, 900 ml.

Think of this as very good sake, because that’s what it’s made from.  The flavor of this vinegar is almost like a ripe and unripe peach put together in perfect balance: the full flavor of ripe fruit, plus a tartness that’s perfectly round and free of any sharp edges or harshness.  A few drops of this vinegar would enhance many things: think a ripe piece of fruit you want to make slightly savory, or turn into a vinaigrette or pickle.  A bright mignonette for oysters, perhaps especially west coast oysters with all their cucumber-melon qualities.  A beautiful escabeche, where the only things that matter are the fish and the vinegar.  Crudo.  Think of it as a new pantry staple you can reach for any time you need to brighten a dish.

Iio Jozo Brown Rice Wine Vinegar, 900 ml.

Make with 280 grams of brown rice per liter. A meatier companion to the pure rice vinegar.  Oily fish, mushrooms, tomatoes, tartare, an earthy mignonette, or ponzu.  Built-in umami.

Iio Jozo Akasu Red Vinegar, 360 ml.

Since Iio Jozo makes their own sake, they end up with the by-product, sake kasu (aka sake lees).  At Iio Jozo, they take the sake kasu and turn it into akasu red vinegar.  This product is aged for 10 years before being released.  Think sherry vinegar crossed with rice wine vinegar.  Limited.

note the cedar barrel in the background

Ito Shoten,  in Taketoyo, Aichi Prefecture, has been making miso and tamari for over 200 years.  This is an eleventh-generation producer.  They age their product in ancient cedar barrels (ranging from 120-200 years old) and weigh down their miso with river stones.  The only ingredients are koji, water, salt, and soybeans.  What makes the use of these ancient cedar barrels so important is the flavor it imparts–not so much from the wood, but from the characteristics the barrels take on over time, giving the products their signature flavors.

Ito Shoten Tamari, 720 ml.

Tamari means “of a pressing,” and that explains very well what this product is.  When miso is made, the brine it releases is what becomes the tamari.  The Aichi prefecture is known for its very dark miso, and accordingly, this tamari is dark and rich.  This needs nothing more than raw fish, although a few drops in a mushroom or game broth would be welcome.   The wheat-free aspect is a side bonus if you want something you can use to massively amplify the flavor of something without adding any gluten, a handy thing to have in the pantry.  Check out those barrels, below- the youngest one is 120 years old.

barrel room


By Diego Maldonado