Friday, 31 July 2015

Solomon Islands - Welcome to the Happy Isles!

The first time I remember becoming aware of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, was when I was living in Thailand in 2004 and I used to watch the weather reports on Australian TV.  I'd never heard of this interesting-sounding place, although I probably had a vague awareness that the Solomon Islands existed.  Ever since then, I've had a mild fascination with this small nation, in the western Pacific Ocean and, it goes without saying that I'd love to visit sometime although, for now, a virtual journey to the Solomon Islands will have to do!

The quest for El Dorado

As I've started my research into the Solomon Islands, I'm already making connections to places I've blogged about previously, namely Oaxaca in Mexico, Yemen and Fiji.

When I was blogging about Oaxaca, I learned about the arrival of the Spanish in central America - the disastrous first contact with Mesoamerican people, such as the Aztecs and the bloodthirsty greed for gold that led the Spanish to Peru and the search for the Golden one or El Dorado.

Beach near Havalo by Jenny Scott
The story of European contact with the Solomon Islands very much starts in Peru.  Having failed to find the fabled El Dorado in the Amazon jungle, the Spanish listened to Inca legends about Tupuc Yapanqui and the discovery of a fabulously rich kingdom of Terra Australis in the Pacific ocean.  In 1567, Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, the nephew of the governor of Peru, managed to convince his uncle to fund an expedition in the Pacific ocean, which ultimately brought him to what we now call the Solomon Islands.

The expedition was a disaster but, rather than admit this and in the hope of funding a second, more successful expedition, Mendaña returned to Peru with stories of a wealthy Pacific kingdom, which soon became known as the Solomon Islands, named after the wealthy Biblical King.  Mendaña eventually died in the Solomon Islands, on his equally disastrous second expedition, but the name has survived to the 21st century - a strange Middle Eastern reference, in a faraway place.

The Queen of Sheba and the man-eating myth

In 2011, I blogged about the Queen of Sheeba and her visit to King Solomon, a prototype of subsequent diplomatic missions.  Mendaña's tales from the Pacific also set in stone a pattern of cultural interaction, where Europeans began to believe that cannibalism was widespread amongst the people of the Pacific and this reminded me of the research I did when I was blogging about Fiji in 2012 and Obeyesekere's study of the man-eating myth.

The Lost islands and World War Two

House in Havalo village by Jenny Scott
After two unsuccessful attempts by the Spanish to colonise the Solomon Islands, they pretty much remained lost in time, as contemporary maps of the Pacific were so inaccurate, that the Solomon Islands was believed to be much further to the east than they actually are.

Despite this loss of contact between Europeans and Solomon Islanders, the European memory of the islands remained and, even today, many of the main islands Santa Isabel, Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal still have the names that were originally given to them by the Spanish in the 16th century.

Guadalcanal is probably the most well-known of the islands and became a theatre of the Pacific war in the 1940's, when the US army fought the Japanese to gain control over this strategic island group, so close to Australia. The British first started getting interested in the Solomon Islands towards the end of the 18th century, but it wasn't really until the 1890's that they established a protectorate over the island group and the British Solomon Islands joined the world stage.

British interest in the Solomons was mostly linked to their fledgling colony in Australia, but also the fact that, in the late 19th century, the Germans were muscling in on (what is now) Papua New Guinea.  A strange anomaly in the Solomons' story is that Bougainville, one of the islands in the Solomon group, is now part of Papua New Guinea rather than the modern-day nation of Solomon Islands.

Man in canoe by Jenny Scott
Islands adrift in time

The Solomon Islands has a couple of nicknames; the Happy Isles and the islands adrift in time.  I'm looking forward to finding out more over the next couple of months, reading, listening, cooking and watching movies associated with the Solomon Islands.  I do hope you'll join me on my virtual journey to this remote corner of the Pacific!

Image credits:

For this first blog post, I wanted to highlight the photos of Flickr member Jenny Scott, a.k.a. Adelaide Archivist.  Jenny took these photos in Halavo village, which is on the Nggela Sule island in the Solomons' central province.  Thanks Jenny for sharing these images using the creative commons license.  

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Réunion - The Final Word

Proposed flag for Réunion
I've found Réunion a fascinating place to blog about - as I've been researching for this blog and learning more about the interesting mix of cultures that Réunion has inherited, I've been mentally planning a trip to the island, at some unspecified time in the future!

As it happens, I have visited a few of the places I've blogged about, having become really interested in these places as a result of my 'armchair learning' experience.  The places I've visited so far as a result of this blog are: Hong Kong, Iceland, Jersey, Quebec and Barbados and I'm hoping to visit Korea and Mongolia later this year!

Of course, there are quite a few places I've blogged about that I may never get the chance to visit (I'm thinking of places like Kiribati, Liberia and Yemen), but a visit to Réunion is a distinct possibility and, as with any of the places I've blogged about, I'd love to visit sooner, rather than later, before Réunion changes too much!

The Themes

During my time blogging about Réunion, I've learned about the history of the island and how Réunion is part of France, although it lies thousands of miles south of Paris, in the Indian Ocean. I've learned about the role that Réunion has played in the cultivation of vanilla, a notoriously expensive plant that originates in Mexico and is incredibly difficult to grow.  I also learned how to make Canard a la Vanille, a typical Réunionnais dish and this was my first time to physically handle vanilla and cook with it.


I read the following books, as part of my research:

Some of the books I read as part of my research on Réunion
Insight Guides: Mauritius, Réunion and Seychelles (2009) - the second edition that Insight guides have published about the Mascarene islands - very informative, as Insight guides usually are.

Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid (2004) by Tim Ecott - which has chapters on Réunion, but also covers Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar.

La Grand-Mere Kalle (2006) by local writer Yves Manglou - which brings to life the mythology of Réunion.  You can read my blog post about this book for more information.

Island Born of Fire (2006) by R.B. Trombley - a scientific book about the geological make-up of the island - a little bit over my head and difficult to read, but interesting all the same.

The Age of Kali (1998) - a collection of travel essays by William Dalrymple - I'd never read Dalrymple before, but I definitely want to read more! His essays are mostly about India and Pakistan, but he does include a couple of interesting essays on Sri Lanka and an essay on Réunion called The Sorcerer's Grave.


I could only find one movie which was set on Réunion, Francois Truffaud's La sirène du Mississippi (1969), which I also blogged about.


I also had a wonderful time listening to the music of Réunion and I created a play list, which includes songs by artists such as Firmin Viry, Granmoun Lélé and Faham.

Other themes

As usual, I came across other themes that were interesting, but I didn't have time to research into further - if you want to continue your own learning about Réunion, I would suggest the following 'other' topics:

Edward's Dodo by Roelant Savery (1626)
The Euro and how Réunion was the first place to adopt this new currency
The pirate La Buse and his hidden treasure, which people believe is still buried somewhere on the island
Les enfants de la Creuse - Réunion's own stolen generation of children who were removed from their parents and brought up in France
The Dodo and how it became extinct
The French code noir which sought to prevent the intermarrying of races
Réunion during World War 2
The Kerveguen sugar empire

The Final Word on Métissage

One thing that came through strongly during my research on Réunion was the importance of métissage in the identity of this far-flung French outpost. Métissage is the French word for mixing and it's a good way of describing the development of culture on Réunion, which has mixed elements of Africa, Asia and Europe to produce a new culture, totally unique to the island.

Expeditus, photo by Jean Poussin
An interesting manifestation of métissage is the cult of St Expédit, the island's unofficial patron saint. According to William Dalrymple, in his book The Age of Kali, the cult of  St Expédit on Réunion started in 1931, when a mysterious package, supposedly containing relics of a Christian saint, arrived on the island from the Vatican and bore a stamp saying spedito, which is the Italian word for expedited or  'sent quickly'.

The cult of St Expédit took such a hold on the island that the Catholic Church was forced to create a 'back story' for the saint and aligned St Expédit with the Roman soldier, Expeditus who became an early Christian martyr in 4th century Armenia.  Whether it's true or not, Dalrymple's theory is an interesting one and I do love a good mystery!

In modern times, shrines to St Expédit on Réunion are usually painted blood red and people pray to the saint for all kinds of things - the cult of St Expédit lends itself to Réunion's métissage culture, mixing African ancestor worship, Hindu reincarnation's of Vishnu and Tamil interpretations of Christianity.  Statues of St Expédit are sometimes mysteriously beheaded and there is something distinctly un-Christian about the magical powers and ability to answer prayers, that St Expédit has been credited with.

The cult of Expeditus is also really popular in Chile, for some reason and I find the whole thing fascinating but also slightly bizarre!

Image credits:

Although I've been using a coat of arms to represent Réunion during my blog posts, I have since discovered a proposed flag for the island, so I wanted to represent this in my final blog post.

The image of Edward's Dodo, the 1626 painting by the Flemish painter, Roland Savery is in the public domain.

The photo of the Expeditus statue has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Jean Poussin and you can see more information on this image here.  

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Réunion - Playlist

Like many other aspects of its culture, the music of La Réunion is a mixture of different influences - whether it's the traditional ballads and chansons of France, or the mesmerising maloya rhythms of Africa, or the fusion of different traditions in séga, with its hints of the Indian subcontinent.

Over the past couple of months, I've been listening to a range of musical artists from Réunion and I've put together this playlist of the songs I liked most, so you can get a flavour of what Réunion has to offer.

1. Mon île by Jacqueline Farreyrol

This is a beautiful song with lyrics that could have been written by the Réunionnais tourist board!  It's very much a traditional ballad, in French style and was first performed by Farreyrol on local television in the 1970's.  It describes the beauty of Réunion and celebrates the positive unity of the people who live on the island - a really good anthem, which I'm sure has been sung at many a party!

I found this video on YouTube, which also has the lyrics, so you can hear for yourself.

Here are some of the lyrics, which I found interesting, as they also mention Réunion's relationship with France:

Mon île 
Tu as réunis dan ton coeur
des gens de toutes les couleurs 
Comme un défi au monde entier
pour le pire et pour le meilleur 
Tu as choisis comme âme soeur 
le pays de la liberté

My island
You have reunited in your heart
people of all colours
Like a challenge to the entire world
for better or worse
You have chosen as your soul mate
the country of liberty

2. Koundy by Firmin Viry

At the other end of the cultural scale from French chanson is maloya the music of the former slaves - very much rooted in African traditions and similar to the music of Madagascar.  Maloya uses percussion instruments like the caïambe and string instruments like the bobre, a kind of musical bow which is very similar to other instruments found throughout the south of Africa.

Maloya is the music of the sugar cane fields and through its rhythm you can picture the workers busy cutting and stacking the sugar cane, calling out to each other in repetitive phrases, as they while away the working day.

The French authorities were so threatened by the power of maloya that they banned it in the late 1950's, at a time when African independence movements were in full swing.  It wasn't until much later, in the 1970's, that singers like Firmin Viry championed this musical tradition, now recognised by UNESCO as part of the list of Intangible cultural heritage.

I've embedded this video from YouTube, so you can hear maloya with your own ears.

3. Soleye by Granmoun Lélé

Another great maloya singer is Granmoun Lélé who was born in Réunion in 1930 but, sadly, passed away in 2004.  I like this video because you can see the music, singers and dancing.  As well as being the music of work and protest, maloya has its roots in a spiritual tradition and I think this really comes across in the songs of Granmoun Lélé.

Like other maloya artists, Granmoun Lélé sings in Kreol - unfortunately, I haven't yet been able to find any translations of the lyrics of these songs, although with a knowledge of French you'll get the gist of the odd sentence here and there!

4. Batarsité by Danyèl Waro

No blog post about the music of Réunion would be complete without reference to Danyèl Waro, a native of the island with a great passion for Kreol language and maloya.  Danyèl Waro is probably more well-known in France and outside Réunion than any other maloya artist and he seems to do quite well on the world music scene.

Waro's music sounds quite bluesy and reminds me of the music of the southern United States.  I think this is a deliberate technique of linking African traditions with the music of African-Americans.

This video from YouTube shows Waro playing the caïambe at a concert in France.

5. Bato Fou by Ziskakan

I really love the music of Ziskakan, who mix maloya with European-style instruments and a distinctive Indian beat.  They've been around since the late 1970's and have played all over the world - Paris, New Delhi, London and the United States.

6. Flèr Malèr by Ousa Nousava

More easy-listening than frenetic African drums, I nevertheless enjoyed listening to the group Ousa Nousava - their name is Kreol for where are we going (in French, Où allons-nous).

7. Alon dansé by Baster

I'm not sure if I fully understand the difference between maloya and séga - although maloya seems to be specific to Réunion, whereas séga is more widespread across the Indian ocean islands.  Séga also seems to be a lot more 'chilled' and I really liked this song, by Baster which I think means Let's dance.

Baster's music reminds me a lot of the music of Caribbean countries like Barbados and I'm sure there is a musical connection between Réunion and French Caribbean territories like Martinique and Guadeloupe.

This video from YouTube is a live performance and, although the sound quality isn't perfect, it's great to see everyone dancing and having a good time!

8. Zalouzie by Lindigo

Lindigo is a more modern maloya group and I really liked this song from their recent (2012) album Maloya Power.  It's interesting to note the presence of the accordion in this track - definitely a French influence, as traditional French music has some great examples of accordion-playing!

9. Mi Ème a Ou by Faham

I was actually a fan of Faham long before I started blogging about Réunion - I came across their music through a fantastic world-music magazine called Songlines.  Faham has four members, three from Réunion and one from Mauritius.

They all grew up in La Creuse, in the French region of Limousin and there is a very well-known scandal around children from Réunion who were brought up in Limousin, a kind of 'stolen generation' like the case of the Aboriginal children in Australia who were forcibly removed from their parents.

I think Mi Ème a Ou means 'where are you taking me' and I assume it's a reference to this stolen generation, who were brought up in France, far from the island of their birth. Faham is a type of orchid found on Réunion and I see a reference there to an exotic flower which is transported far away from its origins.

10. Ti Fleur Fanée by Georges Fourcade

I thought it would be appropriate to finish with Ti Fleur Fanée, the unofficial anthem of La Réunion. It's been sung many times by many different people down the years, but I found this wonderful video on YouTube which features the original singer Georges Fourcade and shows some really old footage of the island.

The song dates from the 1930's and the title means Petite Fleur Fanée or 'Little wilted flower'.  I guess it captures a lot of French colonial nostalgia for the colder climate of Europe, as opposed to the heat of Réunion, where the little flowers wilt?

I hope you've enjoyed this playlist - if you have any other favourite songs from Réunion, please post links to the videos in the comments below.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Réunion - The Call of the Mermaid

I could only find one movie which was set on Réunion Island, François Truffaut's 1969 La sirène du Mississippi (in English, Mississippi Mermaid) starring Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo.

I've realised I definitely don't know enough about Truffaut and that I need to see more of his movies. His 1959 film Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) was a defining moment in French New Wave cinema and he seems to be a kind of French Hitchcock, telling stories of passion and crime, filled with intensity and romanticism. 

La sirène du Mississippi was no exception. It's based on a novel published in 1947 called Waltz into Darkness by the U.S. writer Cornell Woolrich, who wrote under various pseudonyms. Waltz into Darkness was written under the pseudonym William Irish and is a kind of Noir fiction, telling the story of a wealthy man who is duped by a beautiful woman, but he persists in loving her and being duped even more, even if it means he will lose everything. 

One of the big themes of the novel and the movie is mundane stability versus momentary pleasure. The wealthy man has a good life and wants for nothing except female company and adventure. When the mermaid appears on the scene, in the guise of a woman answering a lonely hearts column, he can't resist the call and plunges headlong into financial ruin. 

Truffaut's 1969 film La sirène du Mississippi 
Truffaut's movie is well worth seeing - Belmondo and Deneuve put in fantastic performances and the premise of the original story is enhanced by an international setting which includes not only Réunion island, but also Nouvelle Caledonie, Djibouti, the Côte d'Azur and Switzerland. 

Truffaut's choice of Réunion is an interesting one and I couldn't help but wonder why he chose to use the island as his setting for this histoire noir. The first part of the movie gives the viewer a brief overview of Réunion's geography and history, so I thought perhaps Truffaut wanted to increase public knowledge about Réunion in France, perhaps a politically motivated choice? 

However, I think the main reason he chose Réunion was because of its exotic location, which gave the story an additional dimension that was quite Gothic in its nature. I've been interested in Gothic fiction for quite some time and a common theme of Gothic literature is an innocent young virgin, held hostage by a wealthy but cruel man in a faraway castle, on a remote mountain top or deep in the forest. 

Cornell's novel turns the Gothic theme on its head, as it's the 'not so innocent' and 'not so virgin' young woman who takes advantage of the wealthy man. Whilst Cornell's novel was set in the culturally remote Gothic landscape of New Orleans, Truffaut cleverly uses Réunion as an exotic, faraway, frightening back-drop for the main part of the story. 

It was my first time to see the island on film and I thought it looked amazing - gorgeous plantation houses deep in the jungle, Belmondo wearing a see-through white shirt and driving around the island in a 60's car. It's very much a movie of its time and stylish in a way that would be difficult to replicate nowadays.

I also watched the movie en français, but with French subtitles, which definitely increased my enjoyment of the language and the drama, although I did have to pause every now and then, to look something up in my French-English dictionary! 

Truffaut also makes references to Blanche-Neige et les septs Nains aka Snow White and the Seven Dwarves - a reference that I'm still mulling over. He also references sources I'd not heard of before, such as Jean Renoir's 1936 movie, Le Crime du Monsieur Lange and Balzac's 1831 novel, La peau du chagrin.

I guess I have a lot more learning to do!

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Réunion - In the Kingdom of Sorcerers

As Réunion remained without any permanent human habitation until the 17th century, it's perhaps not surprising that the island's mythology relies heavily on the mythologies of neighbouring countries, such as Madagascar. 

When searching for a good book to read by a Réunionnais writer, I was lucky to come across La Grand-Mere Kalle by Yves Manglou (2006). Manglou has done a great job at bringing to life the story of Réunion, through the fictional eyes of its first inhabitants and under the spell of the witch Grand-Mere (Grandmother) Kalle

Whilst the myth is very strongly connected to Madagascar and the first part of Manglou's novel takes place there, I couldn't help but compare the witch Kala and her daughter Grand-Mere Kalle with the Indian incarnation of Kali, a terrifying aspect of the Goddess Parvati. I wonder if the 'myth' of Kali crossed the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, before being transplanted to Réunion? 

As far as I'm aware, this book hasn't been translated into English, but I was really happy to have an excuse to read a novel in French, as I don't get enough opportunities to re-connect with this language. 

Anyone who's learned another language will know that, no matter how much you learn, there's always more and it was fun grappling with a whole new set of vocabulary that covered the different parts of a ship, trade winds and the names of plants and animals specific to the southern Indian Ocean. 

Coming across words like clin-foc and artimon, I would find out the English translations (blink-jib and mizzen) and then have to look the words up again, this time in my English dictionary! As a result of reading this book, I've learned that ships have different names for the right-hand and left-hand side (tribord and bâbord in French, star board and port in English). 

I've also learned the words for the different masts on a ship - the complicated French names for beaupré, mât de misaine, grand mât and mât d'artimon and the more prosaic English terminology of bowsprit, fore-mast, main-mast and mizzen-mast

I noticed that some of the seafaring words in French look suspiciously English in origin and it made me think about the extent of words being borrowed from English and Dutch into French, rather then the more commonly acknowledged borrowing of French words into neighbouring Germanic languages. 

Jungle by Fabien Gelle
I also came across a lot of French words for birds and birds feature highly in the tale of Grand-Mere Kalle - the fouquet and papangue, which are birds associated with evil and the paille-en-queue (or straw-tail), the 'good guy' in the story, whose presence brings luck to the human settlements.

Much of the novel is like a 'battle of the birds' and it's interesting to see our feathery friends playing such a strong role in Réunionnais mythology. Birds play a strong role in Irish mythology too, particularly swans and it made me think of Irish stories like the Children of Lir

Manglou's novel has a strong ecological message and highlights the importance of teaching children about the need to preserve endemic species. When the children in the story are tricked by the witch and destroy the nests of the pailles-en-queue, a natural disaster happens and many people in the nearby village lose their lives. 

Grand-Mere Kalle and her mother Kala (who resides in Madagascar) are symbols of the destructive power of nature. Grand-Mere Kalle is born in a volcanic eruption and there is something in this myth that exposes the fear that early settlers had of living in such a geologically unstable environment. 

Sunset by Fabien Gelle
I also came across some Réunionnais Creole for the first time and the following sentence gives you a sense of what Creole on Réunion sounds like. When the birds meet their cousins on Mauritius, they say: 

Pé na problèm cousin, to nèk dire moi li pou kan to bizness! 

No idea what it means, but it sounds good! 

I also liked a phrase that was repeated several times in the novel: 

Dans la royaume des sorcières, le temps n'existe pas
(In the kingdom of sorcerers, time doesn't exist)

It gave me a feeling of the languorous nature of life in a small island like Réunion, adrift in the timeless ocean and far away from the bustle of human civilisation.

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight a couple of photographs of Reunion Island by Flickr member Fabien Gellé - thanks Fabien for sharing these images using the Creative Commons license.  

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Réunion - How I made Canard à la Vanille

Due to its strategic location in the western Indian ocean and its history as a centre of contact between European, African and Asian cultures, the island of Réunion has quite a variety of culinary traditions. Whether it's Indian-style carris or Madagascan-style stews like rougail, there's quite a lot to choose from.

I plumped for a dish that combines European and African traditions, with a bit of Chinese duck thrown in for good measure!  As I've recently been learning about the history of vanilla and the role Réunion has played in global vanilla cultivation, I really wanted to experiment by cooking with vanilla myself, for the very first time.

I looked at a few different sources online and then made my own recipe, but I was heavily influenced by Celtnet,org's recipe for Clementine and Vanilla Duck.  This is a great website, that I've used many times in the past and it's a labour of love which currently needs some funding to keep the website going, if you're interested in supporting a worthy cause!

The ingredients

Ingredients for Canard à la Vanille
4 duck breast fillets - 4 filets magret de canard (my fillets were marinated in lemon juice and star anise, which gave them a lovely taste)
2 vanilla pods - 2 gousses de vanille
6 oranges - 6 oranges (smaller oranges like clementines or mandarins work best - I used mandarins)
orange juice - jus d'orange
4 tomatoes - 4 tomates
2 onions - 2 oignons
a cup of rice - une tasse du riz
1 lemon - 1 citron
rocket salad - salade de roquette
French dressing - vinaigrette

How I made Canard à la Vanille

I usually start by making my rice, which I added lemon juice and rind to, once it had cooked, to give it nice tangy taste.

Preparing the orange juice

Next, I prepared the main ingredients.  I chopped the duck breasts into bite-sized pieces; separated four of the oranges into segments or carpels; juiced the other two oranges; chopped the onions; chopped the tomatoes; halved the vanilla pods, then sliced them lengthwise to expose the vanilla seeds.

Prepare the ingredients for the Vanilla Duck stew

I started by frying the duck breasts until they had cooked through and browned on the outside - I removed the duck pieces and set them to one side.

Cook the duck pieces until they brown
Next I fried the chopped onion, until it had softened and yellowed a bit - I added a dash of water and some orange juice, to collect some of the duck fat at the bottom of the pan, so I could start making a sauce.  Next I added the orange pieces and vanilla pods, finally adding the chopped tomatoes and letting the whole mixture stew on a low heat for about 20 minutes, occasionally adding orange juice or water.

Vanilla and orange stew
It was interesting handling the vanilla - the pods were quite 'earthy' and smelt amazing, when I'd split them open.  Most people I know have only ever used vanilla to make ice-cream or dessert, so it was a thrill to add it to a stew - it also felt a bit decadent, considering the price of vanilla pods!

Vanilla pods
Once in the ingredients had stewed a bit, I re-added the duck pieces and some more orange juice and let the whole lot stew on a slightly higher heat for another ten minutes.

Vanilla Duck stew

I served with the lemon-rice, rocket salad and French dressing.  The end result was miam-miam!

Canard à la Vanille served with lemon-rice and rocket salad

Image credits:

All images were taken by me on my trusty Canon EOS 1100D.  Feel free to re-use these images with the Creative commons license:

- Attribution (especially to this blog post)
- Non-commercial
- Share alike

Friday, 3 April 2015

Réunion - In Search of the Ice-Cream Orchid

When I started researching Réunion, I was interested in finding out what the island is famous for and vanilla came up quite quickly as a potential topic, which surprised me, as I had no idea about Réunion's role in the history of vanilla production.

To prepare for this blog post, I managed to get my hands on a copy of Tim Ecott's Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid (2004), a really informative and enjoyable book, which traces the history of vanilla from its natural habitat of Veracruz/Oaxaca, to the first successful cultivation of vanilla overseas in Réunion and its later cultivation in other parts of the world.

As I've blogged about Oaxaca and the Columbian Exchange, I wasn't that surprised to learn that vanilla comes from the 'New World'.  I'm developing a default assumption that many of the world's most popular plants/food products come from the Americas (cacao, chillies, rubber, turkey, potatoes, to name but a few!).

Vanilla pods by B.navez 
What's interesting about vanilla, at least vanilla planifolia, the highly aromatic species of vanilla that we use in food flavouring and perfumes, is that it really wasn't that widespread, even in the Americas and has only been found in its natural state, in a very concentrated area of southern Mexico. The Aztecs called vanilla tlilxochitl or 'black flower' as, by the time vanilla pods arrived in Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico city), they had dried out and discoloured, therefore the Aztecs had never seen live vanilla plants.

Of course, there are many types of vanilla and most are not aromatic. Due to the scarcity and labour-intensiveness of vanilla farming, it has become a much sought-after delicacy and could cost anything between $20 and $300 a kilo, depending on the global harvest, the second most expensive ingredient after saffron - not bad for a non-essential food!

Similar to my blog post on cloves, it turns out that vanilla is a type of flower and it's the only orchid which is cultivated as a food source, rather than for decorative purposes.  There are many artificial vanilla extracts on the market and the chances are, if you think you've tasted natural vanilla, you probably haven't!

So what drives our obsession with this hard-to-cultivate flower pod?  It seems there are three main answers: chocolate, ice-cream and soft drinks.  Vanilla has long been added to chocolate and this is how Europeans first encountered its taste. In the late 19th century, people in the United States started becoming a bit obsessed with ice-cream production, which pretty much sealed the future success of vanilla!  Also, although they don't release details of their 'secret recipes', I'm pretty sure that companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi use real vanilla extract in the manufacture of their soft drinks.

Because of its dependency on pollination by a particular species of mountain bee that's only found in southern Mexico, vanilla cultivation didn't transfer to other parts of the world as quickly as other American plants, such as cacao and potatoes.  In his book, Ecott tells a really interesting story about Edmond Albius, the slave-boy on Réunion island who discovered the technique for self-pollinating vanilla plants and opened up the rest of the world to vanilla production.

Edmond Albius, circa 1863
Albius' fate was tied up with the racism of that time and, rather than being fêted or honoured for his ingenious discovery, white Europeans couldn't believe that a slave-boy would have the intelligence to make such an important contribution towards the world of science and many refused to recognise that his intervention in the development of vanilla production was anything more than an accident.  He died impoverished on Réunion island in 1880, during the decade when Réunion became the first place to overtake Mexico in terms of vanilla production.

Ecott also travels to some of the other great centres of vanilla production such as French Polynesia (Tahiti) and Madagascar.  As the price of vanilla is so high, there is a lot of secrecy around the industry and Ecott's book gave me an insight into a world of armed vehicles, heavily-guarded crops and clandestine flights between Antananarivo and Paris!

A bad harvest can inflate the price of next year's vanilla, as happened in 2004, when the price reached $500 dollars per kilo.  There has also recently been a hike in worldwide vanilla prices, so the drama around vanilla cultivation seems destined to continue for many years to come.

I found some really useful information on the website of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.  According to their stats, the top producers of vanilla in the past two years have been Indonesia and Madagascar (both producing over 3,000 tonnes of vanilla), followed by Mexico, Papua New Guinea and China (with just around 500 tonnes each).

As you can see from the stats below, the production of vanilla in Réunion has fallen dramatically in the last twenty years, from 93 tonnes of vanilla in 1993, to just 8 tonnes of vanilla in 2013.

Vanilla production in Réunion, according to FAO

Réunion's main crop these days is sugar cane and, by way of comparison, I learned that Réunion produced almost 2 million tonnes of sugar cane in 2013 - nothing near the 460 million tonnes produced by world leader Brazil, but not bad for a small island in the Indian ocean and obviously they now produce a lot more sugar cane than they do vanilla.

In the same period, vanilla production has doubled in Indonesia and trebled in Madagascar. Something to think about next time you tuck into a tub of vanilla ice-cream!

Vanilla production in Indonesia, according to FAO
Vanilla production in Madagascar, according to FAO
Image credits:

The image of the vanilla pods is from Wikipedia and has been shared using the Creative commons license - see more details about this image on the file information page.  

The image of Edmond Albius is in the public domain and the statistic images are from the Food and Agricultural Organisation's stats portal.