Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron. Have you ever wondered why? On a recent visit to Reunion Island, I learned all about it at La Vanilleraie on the beautiful estate Domaine du Grand Hazier.
The vanilla flower is open for one day only, and during this time it must be hand-pollinated. In vanilla’s native Mexico, a certain kind of bee pollinates the flower but these do not exist anywhere else. It took colonial farmers many, many years to figure out why the plants didn’t produce beans. Eventually they realised that hand-pollination was the only option. In 1841, a young slave called Edmond Albius perfected the technique (using a thin blade of grass and a simple thumb gesture) that is still used today. Once the beans have developed, each plant is inspected and only the strongest beans are allowed to continue growing. Those that show particular potential are marked with the plantation’s unique sign, using a tiny needle, to avoid theft.
Once the beans are fully developed, they are handpicked and plunged into 65-degree warm water to stop the ripening process. Then they are covered with a wet blanket, warmed up to exactly 50 degrees. This process leaves the beans brown in colour. Now the beans are let to dry in the sun for 2 weeks, and thereafter in the shade for another 2-3 months.
After the initial drying period, the beans are sorted and those that are considered inferior are separated out (to be used for essence and powder). The remaining beans are then aged in wooden boxes (yes, just like good wine or whiskey). This is called aromatic ripening and will give the beans a distinct aroma based on the origin of the bean and the wood used for the ripening. Vanilla from Reunion is said to have notes of prune and liqurice, and real conosoires are said to even be able to distinguish between different plantations based on the terroir of the soil.
Finally, once the beans have been sorted according to size they are gathered into bundles of 50. Depending on the quality of the beans, they may continue to be aged for up to two years before being released on the market. A bundle of fine vanilla will cost up to EUR 100 on the market (equivalent to EUR 500/kg) and well-matured beans with high content of vanillin (identified by the crystals on the bean) can fetch as much as EUR 1,500/kg!
A fine vanilla bean is actually a work of art, where time and artisan skills have been invested to create a superior product. Every step in the process, from pollination to sorting to labelling of the final product, is done by hand. I’m not sure about you, but I certainly have a new respect for this noble spice knowing all this!