Taha’a has become the undisputed center of Tahitian vanilla culture. Dive into the perfumed milieu of this rare and sought after spice.
Taha’a’s lagoon’s profound blue and turquoise hues alongside the flamboyant green volcanic peaks evoke the Polynesian dream. But there’s much more than first meets the eye: a brown gold, Tahitian vanilla or Vanilla Tahitensis, grows out of the rich Polynesian soil. In 2009, 28 of the 73 tons of vanilla produced in French Polynesia came from the 300 vanilla plantations on Taha’a. Once one realizes the importance of this crop to the island, it’s easy to see that the moniker “Vanilla Island” isn’t just a catchy nickname.
Vanilla’s magic begins with its elegant butter-yellow flower. In bunches of 10 to 15 they hatch the vanilla, a plant in the orchid family, that grows in humid shady areas such as in valleys or undergrowth. The vine needs a host plant on which to climb that can provide it with both shade and support. In its natural state, vanilla is usually found growing on candlenut trees (scientific name Aleurites Molucana or tia’iri in Tahitian), purau (Beach hibiscus, Hibiscus tiliaceus) or ‘auti (common hibiscus, Hibiscus rosasinensis).
Vanilla flowers bloom during Austral fall and winter (July to October). During this key period, everyone on Taha’a is madly working since each and every flower needs to be pollinated by hand. Without this delicate operation the flower would fade without producing its precious bean.
One peculiarity of Tahitian vanilla is that it’s what botanists call “indehiscent,” meaning that the fruit doesn’t open up to release seeds when ripe like other types of vanilla. Because of this, the bean can be picked when the perfume is at its height. “This can be compared to the difference between picking a ripe banana and a green banana,” explains Tatiana Hart the Director of the Tahitian Vanilla Establishment, a group charge of promoting and developing the industry.
On Taha’a there are vanilla plantations as far as the eye can see. To understand how much work is involved in the bean’s cultivation, it’s essential to visit a farm. There in the shade, cultivators have to constantly weed and clear so that the plants can grow correctly. The vines must be guided so that the beans will be about head-height. Over the last several years the new “shade” technique has greatly improved production. Black garden shade cover the plantations, and the vines climb up columns of cement with their roots in compost.
But the labor doesn’t stop there; once the beans are harvested they have to be dried properly. Exposed daily to the sun for a few hours, the beans progressively loose about three quarters of their water content and turn a lovely chocolate brown. This takes between three to seven months and is extremely important to the development of the beans’ aroma.
Precise and rapid movements
The history of the hand pollination technique goes back over 200 years when hopeful Europeans brought home vanilla plants from Mexico (the plant’s country of origin) in the 16th century. The plants flowered but couldn’t produce a bean without the aid of a bumblebee only found in the New World. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Edmond Albius, a slave on Bourbon Island in Reunion, discovered the technique that could artificially pollinate vanilla flowers. Since his time exactly the same method has been used, always by hand.
During Taha’a’s vanilla flower season specialists called “populizers,” come and work in all the vanilla plantations; in one day they can perform up to 1,500 pollinations! The future of the harvest depends on the precision and speed of these technician’s hand movements. The hand pollination must be done quickly because the flowers wilt only a few hours after blooming. The flowers are extremely fragile and one of their biggest enemies is rain. Once they’ve been pollinated, the flowers produce bunches of five to six beans each about six to eight inches long. It takes nine months for the beans to ripen, turning yellow then brown at the ends. Harvest time is from May to August.
Queen of vanilla
Thanks to the latest scientific research, we know more and more about Tahitian vanilla and it’s special scent. Scientist Sandra Lepers-Andrzejewski in her recent thesis precisely determined the plant’s genealogy. Vanilla Tahitensis is a natural hybrid of Vanilla Planifolia (maternal) and Vanilla Odorata (paternal); the hybrid is particular to French Polynesia. We also know that the unique perfume of the bean is built from 200 different molecules. The aromatic bouquet, studied closely by scientist Christel Brunschwig in a doctoral thesis, is distinguished by its caramel and anis notes. Sometimes described as the “Queen of vanilla,” Tahitian vanilla today represents about 1 percent of worldwide production. The fine spice is used by the most demanding cooks and pastry chefs. Each of these professionals knows that this type of vanilla has unique vanilla has special qualities and it’s not unusual for them to make a pilgrimage to Taha’a to greater understand all of the bean’s facets. But Tahitian vanilla isn’t just popular as a spice, it’s also used more and more often in perfumes including high-end brands such as Dior and Guerlain.
From the undergrowth of Taha’a to the tables of the world’s finest restaurants, Tahitian vanilla has become a part of the thousand-year quest to the farthest corners of the Earth to search and cultivate the most delicious and exotic spices.
Vanilla and the Navy
Vanilla isn’t endemic to French Polynesia; it was imported and oddly enough the Navy played a big role. In 1848 the French and English – the two colonial powers of the era – were just over their struggle for domination over the islands. At this time the French Admiral Hamlin introduced the first vanilla (Vanilla Planifolia) from Manila in the Philippines. Two years later the opposing Admiral Bonnard brought over some Vanilla Pomponia from the Plant Gardens in Paris and the Antilles. But the adventure didn’t stop there. In 1874 Commander Peirre brought Vanilla Planifolia from Mexico. These species ended up creating a unique hybrid, Tahiti Tahitensis.