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.

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