I think that we’ve come to take vanilla as a fragrance for granted. Sweeping it aside for other more ‘interesting’ olfactory delights. After my visit to Le Vanillerie, a vanilla plantation in Reunion, it became clear how precious this spice actually is. The entire experience is punctuated by rolling waves of pure vanilla scent that can sometimes be overpowering.
As the second-most expensive spice in the world after saffron, vanilla is manufactured in only a few select parts of the world. Although Reunion is not in the top 10 vanilla producers of the world, its Bourbon vanilla is the strain widely cultivated throughout the world’s plantations because of it’s strong, sweet flavour and big pods. What I also learnt is that the vanilla plant is actually an orchid and in order to garner the levels of production necessary to meet demand, these are all hand pollinated in order to grow more of these pods.
The tour at Le Vanillerie starts in the vines of the vanilla plants. The guide explains how delicate each plant is and gives you more context into vanilla production on a global scale. Using a toothpick, our guide demonstrated how exactly each orchid is hand-pollinated. The process is gentle and time-consuming and this is just the start of why vanilla truly is a labour of love.
From the vines, we move into the production plant for the vanilla. I was surprised at how small the facilities are considering how much vanilla comes from this plantation, but the process is drawn out and requires patience. Heavy machinery and technology will do no good here. The vanilla is first warmed in a bath of about 65 degrees, this is to stop any further growth on the pods and to stop rot from occurring.
After the bath, the pods are bundled into a wooden box, perfumed with years of surrounding vanilla scent, and left to ‘sweat’ for a period of just over a week. This is when the actual pods turn brown from their bright green hue and start to look more like the vanilla we’re accustomed to. After sweating, the pods are laid out in trays and are dried through a process of airing and exposure to sunlight. Seeing the pods strewn out across trays in a courtyard was like a culinary dream of sorts. Each pod is stamped and checked by hand several times throughout this process.
Once the pods are sufficiently dry, a process of conditioning begins. Placed in another wooden box, the pods are sealed and remain untouched for a year, only checked every so often to ensure there is no rot. This is referred to as ‘black gold’ and is ultimately the vanilla that will go out to the market. The smell when the box is opened is just overwhelmingly strong, another layer added to the already distinct smell in the air of this place.
Once the pods are ready to be sold, they are graded and packaged in big bundles. These can be bought at the Le Vanillerie or even at the market at Saint Paul that I’ve written about before. Our guide warns though on selecting good quality vanilla from the market, as there are often market stalls peddling young, unconditioned vanilla. “A good quality vanilla pod can be tied in a knot” he says while twisting one of his own into a pretzel shape.
Throughout the entire process, each pod is gently handled a total of eight times including a massage to spread the vanilla seeds evenly throughout the pod (they naturally form on one side of the pod). This alone is the reason why the cost of vanilla is so high, this refined manual labour is skilled and passed down between generations and comes at a price says our guide.
The total tour takes about an hour, and a small shop at the end allows you the chance to purchase not only vanilla pod bundles but also a few other derived products. I’d recommend going on the tour before hopping to any market because I very nearly bought vanilla of poor quality before my visit to Le Vanillerie. It’s a great excursion for an entire family and the walking distance isn;t too severe, but comfortable shoes are best.
My Trip to Reunion Island was part of the Reunion Island Tourism Board’s Mascarun campaign. As with all posts, I maintain full editorial control.