One of the most famous produce of Reunion Island, a French territory situated in the Indian ocean, is the vanilla. Let’s take a tour of Escale Bleu to understand the history of vanilla in the island.
Called Vanilla Bourbon, Reunion Island is the first place in the Indian Ocean where it was introduced after it was discovered in South America during in the 16th century.
The Aztecs, an ancient ethnic group dominant in Mexico, used vanilla to give flavour to their chocolate drinks. Spreading from here, the vanilla commercialised and soon became a success in Europe. The French started producing it in Reunion Island where the tropical weather made for a perfect environment for it to grow.
In the mid-nineteenth century, scientists discovered that for vanilla to grow it needs an external fertilizer, like bees. In 1841, a young slave from Reunion Island, Edmond Albius made a discovery that was going to revolutionise the culture of vanilla. In order to accelerate the production, Edmond squeezed slightly the vanilla flower. The plant automatically gave fruits without an external fertilizer.
This discovery allowed the development of vanilla cultivation on the island, which was once the largest exporter of the plant in the world.
The preparation of vanilla is still done traditionally in Reunion Island. It starts with the mortification by scalding, then comes the fermentation, which gives the vanilla beans a brown colour. Then drying in the sun daily for two to three weeks first, then in the shade on racks. The vanilla pods are then grouped into boots of the same length and stored for two to three months in airtight containers. They then acquire a very high concentration of aroma.
The techniques of drying and fermentation of vanilla pods practiced by the Aztecs, were also introduced to other islands of the Indian Ocean from Reunion: Seychelles first, then Madagascar and the Comoros Islands.