We thought you might like to see a bit of a vanilla farm for your birthday so we’ve been saving this one from when we visited Taha’a. Darren had to stay with the boat as the anchorage was a bit sketch, but Jodi and our friends from s/v Wairua went in to shore and walked over the mountain a couple of valleys on a “Quest For Vanilla”. It was a hot day and we probably only walked about five miles to get there, though with the heat and steep switchbacks it felt more like ten! Fortunately, we got a ride a good bit of the way back (the steepest bit! Yahoo!).
These Lobster Claw Flowers (heliconia rostrata) have nothing to do with vanilla, we just thought they were fun and wanted to share them with you!
We found the Maison de la Vanille just as we were wondering if we had taken a wrong turn and about a half hour or so after they had closed for the day. They were relaxing on the porch of their home out front and after seeing that we had walked to get there, offered to open up and give us the tour anyhow, thank goodness! If you go, the best time to be there is in the morning as that is when the beans are out in the sun to dry and the flowers are open. The flowers are closed in the afternoon so we didn’t get to see them even though it is bloom season.
The vast majority of “Tahitian Vanilla” (Vanilla tahitensis - different in size and flavor from the Mexican vanilla we are used to) is actually raised on Taha’a and some comes from as far away as Hiva Oa, but of course, Tahiti is a much more recognizable name so it is all labeled “Tahitian”. Can you imagine Hood River pears being called "Seattle Pears"?!
We have seen Tahitian vanilla raised two ways in our travels, either under shade cloth to protect it from birds, wind, sun, etc. or out in the open. Our wonderful tour guide (whose name I unfortunately have lost) explained that her father trained her to only use vanilla that is grown in the open. It is more challenging to get a higher yield that way but he believes that it makes a stronger, more robust bean. Makes sense.
|Vanilla vines trained on Tia Iri trees|
Maison de la Vanille has a small plot for show next to their processing shed where we were able to see the vines up close. They are planted in one meter long pieces with several around each tree. The trees they use are the Tia Iri tree, chosen for the balance of shade and sunlight they allow through their leaves to the vanilla vines below. The vines can begin to be pollinated in their second year but again, her dad prefers to wait till the third year to cultivate a stronger vine. Each individual flower is hand pollinated – we never could get a straight answer as to why, “it’s always been done that way”, though I imagine the vines must have been imported and the bees that are the natural pollinators for these particular orchids don’t live here. (For a fascinating look at pollination, check out the BBC “Private Life of Plants” series, especially the bit on orchids in Part 3 “Flowering”). After pollination it takes 9 months for the beans to develop. Just like a baby!
|These beans were actually in Tahuata at a house we called the Garden of Eden!|
The beans are picked green and brought to the processing shed where they age in a shaded room till they turn brown. They are then given a bath (water only) and placed in bags made of a special cloth that is never washed with soap so that no odor is transferred to the beans.
Next they are laid out on these racks every day to age in the sun. Each day at about 2pm, depending on the weather, they are brought back into the ‘spa’ part of the shed and the bags of beans are placed in wooden boxes called ‘saunas’! They rest in the saunas overnight to keep them warm from the cooler nights so they can continue their curing and fermentation.
|Vanilla bean tanning beds|
After 4 months of going back and forth between the sun and the sauna, they are evaluated. When they are deemed ready, they are massaged and air dried on racks in the shed for 4 days. Hmmm, deep tub bath, sunning, sauna, massage, rest…where do I sign up?! After their massage and rest they are sorted by size and shipped out for sale. The majority of beans from Maison de la Vanille go to European chefs since Americans mostly use extract.
|The beans are measured in centimeters|
A note on cooking with vanilla beans - our guide confirmed that like most recipe instructions that instruct you to use something once then ‘discard’ it (a waste that is a pet peeve of Jodi’s!), this is also a load of bunk in the case of vanilla. A good vanilla bean can be used multiple times if you are making simple things like yogurt. Just rinse it and dry it between uses, or cut off a small piece to throw in your batch of ginger ale. Even if you are infusing rum (alcohol extracts the essence more efficiently than a water or fat based substance), you can use the bean for two infusions of two weeks each. Use the bean whole for the first infusion and split it for the second. Our guide claims vanilla beans can be kept in a glass jar (plastic can flavor the bean) for 7 years or more!
|Only the bottom one is ready for use|
As means of justifying the prices these little gems command, our guide is careful to emphasize throughout the tour that all of the work is done by hand and that each vine is only good for about 7-10 years before needing to be replanted. And that argument would seem to hold water, though some of our group does a little quick math and figures working for a few hours a day, four months a year - even if it is seven days a week - doesn’t seem like such a bad gig when you are making about $400 per kilo!
We hope you have enjoyed your Tahitian vanilla tour, though it would have been better if you were here to take it with us! Then again, you might not agree given the hiking involved to get there! Happy Birthday and we’ll leave you with a couple of shots of the waterfronts we’ve been seeing lately (a slightly different view than where you normally celebrate your birthday) and the sunset shot that should have gone with the last post.
|The magic hour for light|
|Church in Maupiti|
|Sunset in Bora Bora|
Lots of love and hugs,
Jodi and Darren