La Vanilleraie, a traditional workshop for the preparation of vanilla, located in Sainte Suzanne - Reunion Island – unveils the history, the cultivation and the secrets of vanilla preparation.
Vanilla is a member of the orchid family and the only edible fruit-bearing one. The vanilla family includes 110 species, among them only 3 are used for their flavor.
The most flavoured one, Vanilla planifolia, comes from Mexico where men have been using it for more than 2000 years. First mixed with incense and used during religious ceremonies, vanilla was then used to flavour a beverage made out of cocoa beans. The legend says that the Aztec emperor Montezuma welcomed the conquistador Hernan Cortes by offering him a vanilla-flavoured chocolate, served in gold cups. Imported in Europe in the mid-sixteenth century, vanilla became the royal drink of choice in every courts of Europe (the rumour says Louis XIV was a vanilla-lover).
Vanilla in Reunion Island
In 1819, vanilla is introduced for the first time in Reunion by the captain Philibert and the botanist Perrotet, in order to be grown. Yet, vanilla cultivation will remain rather discreet during more than 20 years for lack of natural pollination (the bee that naturally fertilize vanilla plants in Mexico doesn’t exist in Reunion).
We will have to wait until 1841 when Edmond Albius, a twelve-year-old slave, discovered the technique of hand-pollinating vanilla which is still used nowadays. Vanilla cultivation is about to experience a revolution in Reunion Island.
Unfortunately, vanilla beans split when mature and lose some commercial value. Thanks to their skills, two reunionese producers, Ernest Loupy and David De Floris, will elaborate a method of preparation that will let the vanilla bean develop its full aroma without splitting (this method is still used).
This major discovery allowed Reunion Island to become the first world producer of vanilla in the late nineteenth century by exporting 200 tons of vanilla. From Reunion, vanilla cultivation will spread and conquer the neighbouring Comoro islands and then Madagascar where it will experience a major development. Reunion played therefore a decisive role in the development of this spice at a global level.
Vanilla needs a warm and humid tropical climate to grow. That’s the reason why we can find vanilla plantations on the east cost of Reunion (the rainiest region). Most of the plots of land are located in the forest because light shade is necessary to the proper development of the vanilla plant.
After plantation, three years are necessary before we can see the first vanilla flowers blooming. Those flowers are ephemeral and must be pollinated during the morning as the flower wilt within a day. One flower gives one vanilla bean. So, thousands of flowers must be hand-pollinated by producers during the three months of flowering time (October to December).
The vanilla bean reaches its final size two months after being pollinated but will need 9 months to reach maturity. As it is equivalent to maternity time, vanilla has been raised as a sacred plant by the Aztecs. Once it is well-ripened and still on the plant, the vanilla bean naturally takes on a chocolate then black colour and split lengthways, revealing its perfume.
In order to keep all its flavour and qualities, it’s important to harvest vanilla beans just before they split. The harvesting step is essential and determines the final quality of the product because, like wine, aromas only accumulate themselves in the vanilla bean at the end of maturation.
Vanilla must be picked bean after bean when at right stage. Harvesting time begins in June and ends in mid-October.
To prevent vanilla beans to split after they have been collected, they have to be scalded within 48 hours.
In other words vanilla beans have to be immersed in hot water at a temperature of 65°C/149F for 3 minutes.
This method has been developed by Ernest Loupy in 1851 and then perfected by David De Floris in 1857.
Drained, vanilla beans are immediately placed in wooden boxes lined with blankets to make them sweat for 24 hours. This is the sweating step. During this step the beans take on this beautiful chocolate colour. At that stage, vanilla beans are still full of water and must be dried to ensure their preserving.
Vanilla drying is a two-step process: a first very intense sun-drying for about ten days and then a slower drying in a shady area for
2 to 3 months. Vanilla pods are regularly sorted out to evaluate their stage of desiccation.
Dried vanilla beans go to maturation boxes for minimum 12 months whereas the beans that aren’t dry enough go back to slow drying. The aromas of vanilla develop themselves during this slow aromatic maturation stage. It’s the equivalent of the barrel aging for wine. The aroma of vanilla is a very complex one made up of more than 180 different molecules. A regular checking of the maturation boxes is made to prevent any mould development.
Vanilla beans don’t acquire their subtle and delicate fragrance until the end of this long maturation process. They are then graded and bundled to be stocked while they can keep all their qualities. Until that moment they cannot be sold. All in all, 2 years separate the harvesting of vanilla beans and the sale. This is how Reunion Island built its reputation and is ranked among the best vanillas in the world. Love and patience are what characterize vanilla and make of it an exceptional product.