Did you know that vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron? Well chances are probably not and the reason why vanilla is so expensive is that it takes years to become usable. The best place to learn about Bourbon vanilla is at the La Vanilleraie, a traditional workshop located in Sainte Suzanne in Reunion Island.
History of Vanilla
The vanilla plant has been in use for over 2000 years and is native to Mexico. Vanilla in Reunion Island dates back to 1819 and was introduced by Captain Philibert and Botanist Perrotet. However the cultivation did not take off for 20 years as the bees that pollinate the vanilla plants in Mexico did not exist in Reunion. However in 1841 Edmond Albius, a twelve-year-old slave discovered the technique of hand-pollinating the vanilla which ensured vanilla cultivation here. The plant needs a warm and humid tropical climate and hence the vanilla plantations are concentrated on the east cost of Reunion Islands which is the rainiest region, compared to the dry West coast. Again, the vanilla plants grow in the forest as they need the shade and cling on to the plants they are growing under to get the sunlight. So it is a careful balance of rain, sunlight and shade for the plant to grow and a 1.5 meter long cutting is used to cultivate the next crop as opposed to using seeds.
It takes three years for the vanilla flowers to start blooming and being ephemeral, they must be pollinated in the morning as the flower wilt within a day. Also one flower gives only one vanilla bean and workers hand pollinate more than 200 flowers per hour during the flowering period that is typically between September/October to December. “Hand pollination involves cutting the hood that protects the male organs, lifting up the flap that separates it from the female organs and bringing them into contact as delicately as possible. The vanilla bean reaches its final size two months after being pollinated but needs 9 months to reach maturity like a baby,” explained Bertrand CÔME, Directeur chez La Vanilleraie. A vanilla pod forms after a vanilla flower is pollinated within 12 hours of opening.
Vanilla Harvesting & Processing
In order to keep all its flavour and qualities, it is important to harvest vanilla beans just before they split. After collecting the beans, they have to be immersed in hot water at a temperature of 65°C for 3 minutes within 48 hours. This method has been developed by Reunionese producers Ernest Loupy in 1851 and perfected by David De Floris in 1857. At this stage only 10 percent of the aroma as most of it is locked in large molecules. The drained, vanilla beans are immediately placed in wooden boxes lined with blankets to allow them to sweat for 24 hours when they develop the brown chocolate colour. The beans are still full of water at this stage and need to be dried twice – a 10 day intense sun-drying and slower shade drying for 2 to 3 months. Vanilla pods are regularly sorted out and the dried vanilla beans go to maturation boxes for minimum 12 months and are checked regularly for mould development. The delicate fragrance is developed after a year and then they are graded and bundled and ready to be sold after another year! Now you know why vanilla is valuable.
- Vanilla is a member of the orchid family and the only edible fruit-bearing variant.
- There are 110 kinds of vanilla, only 15 have flavor and only three can be used – vanilla planifolia, vanilla tahitiensis, and vanilla pompona.
- Vanilla needs a combination of rain, sunshine and shade to grow and hence is cultivated in controlled environment.
- It takes roughly 2 years from harvest to when it is sold on Reunion Island, making it one of the top quality producers in the world.
This story appeared in The Tribune dated 17th Dec, 2017 here: