Discovering Bourbon vetiver, an iconic crop from the Wild South
Vetiver, from the leaf to the root
At Far Far de Bézaves, I learned how to plant and harvest Bourbon vetiver, a grass that’s been grown in the south of the island since the 18th century. A precious essential oil is extracted from its roots, used by the greatest perfumers.
We’re off to Bézaves, a district in the heights of St Joseph, to meet one of the last vetiver growers on the island. Didier welcomes us onto his farm with his big smile, his vacoa hat and his singing accent so typical of the south of the island. He speaks passionately about this centuries-old crop that’s almost disappeared, and which a handful of enthusiasts is trying to save. “Saint Joseph and Petite Ile were the stronghold of vetiver until the 1980s. During this golden age, Reunion was the world’s second largest exporter of vetiver essential oil. Today, there are only two of us on the island!”, he explains.
The smell of money
He shows us the parasols he makes with vetiver straw, and the roots which he sells as fagots in the island’s markets. It’s an opportunity to handle vetiver, to appreciate its essence so particular, woody and green. The greatest perfumers use it as a base note, to reveal the top notes, which are much lighter. That’s it, I’m all perfumed up for the day: this essential oil lasts on the skin for more than eight hours!
“Here, people say that the smell of vetiver is the smell of money. I suggest making you some little fagots, so you can take them home with you!”, he laughs. Placed in cupboards, these bundles protect clothes from moths for up to two years, until there’s no more essential oil in the roots.
Planters for a day
Our vetiver roots in hand, we continue our tour of the farm, which also grows sugar cane, turmeric and “Bourbon Pointu” coffee. “I always say there’s nothing that doesn’t grow in Saint-Joseph; we have a soil of incredible richness”, he proclaims, proudly.
Arriving at the vetiver field, with a stunning view of Saint-Joseph, Didier suggests we become planters for a day. The hardest part of the job has already been done: the large green “tufts”, whose roots can reach down up to three metres into the ground, have been dug up. But to make nice fagots, we still have to remove all the earth from them … and it’s no easy task. Armed with our forks, we do our best to shake the plant, with plenty of laughs along the way. Then, it’s time to trim the plants with the machete and replant them on the neighbouring plot, under Didier’s watchful eye.
Delights from the field
After all the effort, the comfort: we end the visit with a tasting. While we’re served a cup of Bourbon Pointu coffee, I let myself be tempted by a piece of cassava cake and an arrow root cream caramel. It’s the perfect way to end our authentic visit on a gourmet note.