Introduced to Reunion at the beginning of the 19th century, vanilla may well have remained a secret crop, were it not for the ingenuity of a young slave, Edmond Albius, who discovered the process for the manual fertilisation of this orchid, originally from Mexico. Thanks to the work of passionate producers who continued to perform the delicate pollination processes for more than a century and a half, vanilla from Reunion Island, or Bourbon vanilla, is now considered to be the best in the world.
Long fragrant pods that are dried to enable the extraction of the 180 molecules that result in the aroma and flavours that are unique the world over... a complex and enchanting scent that is, in itself the promise of a journey... Bourbon vanilla is not just an exceptional culinary product, but is also a part of the cultural heritage of Reunion and a memorial to its past. It also features on the island's coat of arms, interlaced with the slogan of the French East India Company: Florebo quocumque ferar (I will flower everywhere I am carried).
Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid, originally from Mexico and introduced to the island in 1819 with a view to it being cultivated: however, the natural production of the pods, with a very low yield, did not allow for it to be exploited on a large scale... until 1841. That year the young slave Edmond Albius discovered the process for the artificial fertilisation of this vine orchid, which has a beautiful white flower, thrives in damp and warm conditions and flowers in the shadow of the trees that it uses as a means of support. Today, the manual pollination of this ephemeral flower (it only lives for a single day!) is still practised by the vanilla producers from October until the end of December. The movement is precise: without putting the flower under stress, it is a matter of cutting the hood (labellum) that protects the male organs, lifting up the flap-like rostellum, separating it from the female organs, and then delicately bringing them into contact.
Nine months later the pods make their appearance and the producers, like happy parents, name them at the base, by scoring on their initials. Once they have reached a good size, but while still green, the pods are harvested so that they can undergo the preservation process, developed by two Reunionese citizens in the 1850s. Heated for several minutes, fermented and then dried before being aged for several months, the pods are transformed into Bourbon vanilla, which, like a fine wine, thus acquires its unique fragrance and flavour !
Discover vanilla on Reunion Island
Private plantations (kept under shade or at the heart of the magnificent "forests of coloured wood") and cooperatives open their doors to the public, providing a close-up look at the small miracle that is the birth of vanilla. In Sainte-Suzanne, to the north-east of the island, La Vanilleraie [The Vanilla Plantation] offers the chance for visitors to discover the history of Bourbon vanilla and to acquire an appreciation of its many culinary uses: for while vanilla is indeed sold in its natural form - connoisseurs do not trust pods that are excessively sticky, instead preferring a product that is in the process of being dried, an indication that it has been properly preserved - the spice also works fantastically well in syrup, mixed into fruit preserves, in extract form as a cooking ingredient... available in sweet and savoury varieties. One classic dish that is available in many restaurants is canard à la vanille (duck in vanilla), providing a gourmet tour of the various spices: turmeric, clove and nutmeg complemented by the sweetness of the vanilla. Quite simply unforgettable !