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Vanilla, the magic bean

I first visited a vanilla plantation when I was 10 years old, a very boring thing to do with a 10 year old one might think. Actually not, it's a visit that has stayed with me until today. The smell of the vanilla as you step inside the plantation has remained in my memory to this day! That's why I really wanted my two daughters Alice and Juliette to experience this wonderful place as well: La "Coopérative Provanille de Bras-Panon", a cooperative that processes the vanilla of the island, where a 120 local producers come to sell their crop. This is such a special place, that every time I go back to Reunion, I just have to visit it. And, as soon as you arrive you are hit with the powerful aroma of vanilla. I just had to share this wonderful tradition with you.

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vanilla, the magic bean

Son histoire:

From Mexico to Reunion Island…

Vanilla came to Reunion Island in the 17th century from Mexico. At the time, It was used as a decorative plant in the gardens of the rich and powerful until a 12 year old boy called Edmond Albius discovered how to pollenate the plant and what we now called “La Vanille Bourbon” was born.

Edmond was a slave, and one day he got so cross with his master that he crushed all the flowers of the vanilla vine. A few weeks later, he discovered that some of the flowers that he had crushed had turned into vanilla pods. This is how manual pollination started. Edmond was made free in 1847 but was never recognised for his discovery during his lifetime, he actually died in poverty. A very ironic and unfortunate ending when a kilo of vanilla today can cost up to 3000 euros!

From a vine to a vanilla bean…

Vanilla starts as a vine that climbs on the “vacoa” and “chandelle” trees. After fours years, the vine starts flowering and produces a beautiful orchid (the only orchid in the world that produces a fruit). In Mexico, the flowers are naturally pollenated by the Mexican bee, but in Reunion this bee can’t survive, so pollination has to be done manually.

When the flowers come out, farmers have to go very quickly to pollenate them as the flower lasts only one morning. One farmer can apparently pollenate 2000 flowers a day, the person in charge of this very skilful job is called “la marieuse” (the matchmaker). It is a very important process, if pollination is not done properly the fruit will not grow. After pollination it takes a month for the vanilla to come out. It looks like a fat runner bean. It will take another nine months for the bean to be ready to be harvested. At this point, farmers take their crops to the cooperative where the lovely, scented vanilla that we find in our shops will be processed.

From a bean to a vanilla pod… 

When the vanilla arrives at the cooperative, each pod is carefully checked for quality and maturity. A good pod has to have a yellow tip or the pods will not be processed. The pods are soaked into a 65°C water for three minutes. They are then put into wooden containers and covered with blankets and will remain in those containers overnight. It is at this point that the pod takes the brown colour that we know. The vanilla is then stored onto wooden racks. The pods are dried outside 3 hours a day for a week. After that, the pods remain onto their wooden racks inside for another month. They are then individually checked by hand to see if they’re dry. Skilled workers can feel which pods are properly dried by rolling the pods between their fingers. Once dried, they are stored into wooden boxes for two years before being sold. Special paper is used to ensure that the pods do not enter into contact with the wood or enzymes in the wood will destroy the vanilla. One point to bear in mind is also that during these two years, the wooden boxes will be emptied and checked monthly by hand, to make sure that the vanilla is not mouldy.  One mouldy vanilla pod is enough to contaminate an entire container.

This is the basic process. Subtle changes allow different flavours and aromas to be produced. The highest quality vanilla will have needle like crystallised “suc” on its surface. These pods are sorted by the top quality restaurants in the world.

Bear it in mind next time you buy a vanilla pod it’s pricy for a reason. It takes two to three years from the vine to the pod for the vanilla to release its unique aroma………….  


Here’s the link to the plantation I visited in Reunion

Here’s a classic dessert using vanilla, “crême brulée”