Producing real vanilla on Réunion Island

Cultivating vanilla on Réunion Island – and elsewhere – is a drawn-out, specialised process done entirely by hand. Even the pollination is painstakingly carried out flower by flower. This explains why vanilla costs up to R5 600/kg. Lloyd Phillips visited an artisanal vanilla farm on Réunion Island.

Most vanilla-flavoured food and fragrances on store shelves around the world may taste and smell remarkably similar to the real thing, but are the result of artificial additives such as vanillin or ethyl vanillin. Vanillin is derived from the lignin in woody plants, while the more expensive and three times more potent ethyl vanillin is manufactured in a laboratory. As remarkable as these synthetic copycats are, real vanilla remains the choice of discriminating chefs and manufacturers. The three vanilla species grown most commonly are Vanilla planifolia (also referrred to as V. fragrans), V. tahitensis and V. pompon.

Four generations of vanilla farmers
Vanilla originates in Mexico but is today grown in several other countries, including Réunion Island, Madagascar, Indonesia and India. Maurice Roulof is a fourth-generation vanilla producer on his family’s farm, La Plantation Vanille Roulof, in Réunion. Maurice produces artisanal vanilla, following mostly traditional practices, including pollinating each V. planifolia orchid flower by hand.

Listening to Maurice guide a tour of his 0,81ha vanilla enterprise, it becomes clear that he is extremely proud of what he does and of the high quality vanilla pods and oil that he produces. According to Maurice, the vanilla plant is a robust climbing vine and the terminal bud can grow up to one metre in length in a single month. The easiest way to reproduce the plant is to graft cuttings onto a mother vine that is about 1,5m in length. These cuttings are taken from terminal buds, along with several aerial roots. The last three nodes of the vine cutting are placed horizontally in trenches in the soil.

The bud that grows from here is attached vertically to a stake using soft ties. Plants are spaced about 1,5 m apart. The ideal growth conditions for vanilla plants include soils high in organic matter and with excellent drainage, high rainfall and high humidity. Two-thirds of the plant needs to be in the sun and the other third in the shade; this will encourage flowering without compromising vine growth. These conditions are typical of Réunion’s tropical climate, Maurice says.

Three methods are used to cultivate vanilla. The plants are grown in open fields, where tutors made of Pleomele sp. or Jatropha sp. wood are used to support the growing vanilla vines. They are cultivated in shade-cloth tunnels, where the vines are supported by deadwood pickets. And they are grown in the indigenous forests of the island, where Casuarina spp. and screw pine (Pandanus utilis) trees make ideal natural tutors for the vines because of their long, straight stems.

Maurice uses the first two methods on his farm and explains that between 2 000 and 4 000 vanilla plants can be planted per hectare. “It’s important that the soil in which vanilla vines are planted is nourished with organic waste, particularly from decomposing plant material,” he explains. “We use mainly sugarcane leaves and bagasse, which are plentiful on Réunion. We also use micro-jet irrigation to provide moisture in October and November, when it’s driest here.”

Maurice Roulof

The vanilla vines grow rapidly and would soon be too tall for the tutors and pickets. They are therefore curled down regularly and fastened with soft string. Equally, if they grow too low they must be trained upwards. “At times, we also practise layering – burying part of a growing vanilla vine in the soil at the base of a tutor or picket so that it produces roots and offshoot vines of its own,” he explains.

A vanilla vine will start flowering only from about four years after planting. On Réunion, this flowering takes place from September to December every year. While a vanilla vine produces many delicate orchid flowers at a time, these survive for only about six hours, opening in the early morning and dying at about noon on the same day.

Pollinating by hand
“In Mexico, where the Vanilla fragrance originated and it grows in the wild, there is only one species of bee that has evolved to pollinate the vanilla flowers,” explains Maurice. “We don’t have these bees on Réunion so all our vanilla flowers have to be hand-pollinated.

“To do this, we first have to pull off the flower’s petals to access the pollen and the pistil. Then, using a thin needle or thorn, we lift up the membrane covering the pistil. With the membrane held up, we then use the other hand to bring the hermaphroditic flower’s pollen sac into contact with the pistil to pollinate it. An experienced worker can pollinate 1 500 to 2 000 flowers in a morning.”

A long, thin, green vanilla pod then gradually develops from each successfully pollinated flower, reaching its full length of 18cm to 20cm about a month after pollination. However, the vanilla pods are only harvested nine months later. This allows each pod sufficient time to ripen on the vine. The initially green vanilla pod turns yellow once it is sufficiently ripe. Ripe vanilla pods are harvested between June and September every year.

The production of real vanilla is a long and exacting process. It takes more than four years before a plant’s first pod can be harvested, and the pod then has to undergo a further 12 months’ treatment before it can be used.

The technique used to process vanilla pods was developed by Ernest Loupy on Réunion in 1851. The first step is to immerse the vanilla pods in water heated to a temperature of 65°C for three minutes. This scalding stops the pods from ripening further and growing vegetatively, Maurice explains.

Immediately after being removed from the hot water, the pods are wrapped in woollen blankets and tightly sealed in wooden crates for 12 hours. The aim is to retain the water’s heat in the pods as long as possible. This cause them to sweat and within 12 hours they lose almost 20% of their weight and turn chocolate-brown in colour, he says.

Sun drying
The pods are then removed from the crates and laid out in the sun on racks for four to five hours a day for two weeks. It is essential, however, that the drying pods do not get wet, as they will become mouldy. The pods are then laid out on mats in a large, airy room for the next month. Each pod is sorted by hand according to its moisture content. Sorters roll every pod between their fingers; those that can be rolled easily are left on the mats for a few more days, while those that stick to their fingers are moved on to the next step of processing.

The dry vanilla pods are then placed in different wooden crates, and parchment paper is used to prevent them from sticking to the crates’ sides. During the eight to nine months they spend in these crates, the pods will begin developing their vanilla aroma.

At various times during this period, they are checked for mould and tied into small bundles. The whole pods are then finally ready to be sold to consumers and the remainder are used to make vanilla extract. A vanilla plant’s life-span is approximately 20 years and each plant can produce up to 1kg of green pods per year. It takes 5kg of yellow vanilla pods to produce 1kg of marketable vanilla pods.

A high quality product
“Our processed vanilla pods are of such high quality that consumers can preserve them for up to eight years before they lose their flavour and fragrance,” says Maurice. To store at home, simply place the pods in a sealable glass jar and store it in a dark, dry cupboard until required, he says. La Plantation Vanille Roulof currently sells its highest quality vanilla pods for approximately €400/ kg (about R5 600/kg). Lower quality vanilla from Madagascar sells for €40/ kg (R570/kg) to €50/kg (R711/kg).

Maurice’s vanilla is mainly targeted at Réunion’s upmarket restaurants and hotels, as well as at the many local and foreign tourists who visit La Plantation Vanille Roulof to learn more about artisanal vanilla production and processing.

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Lloyd Phillips’s flights were sponsored by SA Canegrowers. He was hosted on the island by the European Union and Legta St-Paul.