In 1841, a 12-year-old slave boy single-handedly discovered how to make vanilla available to the world.
The boy was one Edmond Albius, and he had perfected a simple way to artificially pollinate vanilla flowers on the tropical island of Reunion. This made commercial cultivation possible for the first time and spurred a vanilla boom on the islands of the western Indian Ocean. More than 160 years later, vanilla is culinary icon (and major export earner) in Reunion, Madagascar, and the Comoros archipelago.
The aromatic plant with thin, dark pods is now also attracting tourists as vanilla plantations have thrown open their gates to curious visitors. “The temperature and humidity of these islands are ideal for growing vanilla,” says Francois Mayer, manager of Reunion’s Cooperative de Vanille.
“Reunion doesn’t produce an awful lot of vanilla compared to places like Madagascar and the Comoros, but we like to think that we grow the best. And the savoir faire, the know-how, comes from Reunion and spread from here to the rest of the world.”
At the Cooperative de Vanille, a working plantation near the village of Bras-Panon on Reunion, you can see historical exhibits and vanilla-processing demonstrations. While most of the vanilla produced on these islands is exported to Europe, the islanders do keep some for themselves.
Among typical dishes that you come across in Reunion Creole restaurants are chicken or duck a la vanilla, as well as incredibly tasty vanilla ice cream, crepes, and rum punch.
When to Go: The vanilla growing season lasts from June to December. Toward the end of this period, the pods are cut, collected in baskets from the fields, and taken to the plantation factories for drying.
Planning: Anyone wishing to visit the vanilla-producing regions of Reunion, Madagascar, and the Comoros will need two weeks; two or three days will suffice if you narrow the quest to just one island destination. The best restaurants are found in Antananarivo (Madagascar) and St. Denis (Reunion); St. Dennis is also the best place for buying local cookbooks with vanilla recipes and various forms of vanilla that can be used for cooking at home.
Websites: www.la-reunion-tourisme.com, www.air-mad.com
Other Breton Fare
• This vanilla-spiked sugar adds a hit of vanilla to all your recipes. It is delicious sprinkled on strawberries or your morning porridge.
• 450 g sugar and 2 vanilla beans (pods)
• Pour the sugar into an airtight canister. Using a sharp knife, slice each pod in half lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds and put them into the sugar. Stir to mix. Poke the pods into the sugar, making sure they are completely covered, and seal the canister.
• After two days, the sugar will take on a vanilla scent and flavor. Use as you would regular Sugar.
• Vanilla sugar keeps for months. As you use it up, top up with more sugar until the beans lose their scent.