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The Secret of Vanilla

By Tony Mathiot

Vanilla.  The mysterious and beautiful orchid vine which for centuries has enchanted the world with the aroma and flavour of its fruits. Tony Mathiot follows the trail of its fragrance back to its primeval origins and discovers how once upon a time it brought fortune  and prosperity to Seychelles.

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Vanilla Featured on the Seychelles Postage Stamp of 15th January 1968

One early morning, in the year 1841 on a large plantation at Belle Vue on the island of Réunion, a lanky black boy was walking in his master’s orchard, contemplating the prospect of another working day.  He liked his master because he treated him with affection and respect and made him felt more like his son than his slave.  The boy who had lost his mother at birth was at first cared for and tended to by his master’s sister before his master Ferréol Beaumon Bellier adopted him.  He was a man highly respected for his steadfastness of character and fortitude.  He had a passion for botany and agriculture and had inculcated in the boy an interest in plants.

The boy ambled nonchalantly along the rows of fruit trees tilting his head up to look at the citrus fruits, the pawpaws and the various annonas.  Presently he came to the vines that were trained on posts.  He stopped and looked pensively at their greenish yellow flowers.  He was familiar with them.  He knew that they had bloomed a few hours before and that before nightfall they would wither and fall.  These were the strange vanilla orchids that his master was so preoccupied with and which were also the source of his vexation because for a long time he had been looking for a method of fecundating the flowers in order for them to produce pods, which were selling for lucrative prices on the spice market.  The boy desperately wanted to make his master happy.  For some seconds his eyes remained fastened on one of the flowers in curious scrutiny, and then his hand came up and touched the envelope of petals gently, as if trying to coax some mysterious secret from the feel of the flower.

Suddenly, he dashed to a nearby lemon tree, broke off a single thorn and then rushed back to the flower.  Holding it in one hand, he applied the lemon thorn inside the flower, making deft little movements with an almost studious artistry as if motivated by an instinctive knowledge of what he was doing.  When he had finished he took another flower and performed the same task and then another and another.  Of course, at that instance, on that particular day, the slave boy was unbeknownst to the fact that he had in an almost impulsive act of frivolity accomplished a mind boggling botanical feat that would throughout the entire 19th century bring wealth to colonial powers and individuals.  He was twelve years old and his name was Edmund Albius.

 

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Edmond Albius – (1829-1880) Slave who in 1841 discovered the artificial method of fecundating Vanilla flowers.

 

It is by virtue of its ancient history, mysterious beauty and its fugacious blossoms that botanists often refer to it by the feminine gender. Sure enough its very name derives from the Latin word vagina meaning sheath. (From its elongated fruit)

Vanilla (vanilla planifolia) is a liana of the orchid family, which is the largest group of flowering plants, with over 35, 000 species and 800 genera.  In many countries of the Indian Ocean it is cultivated for its long narrow seedpods from which vanilla essence is extracted.

In Seychelles, like elsewhere in the tropics, the humid heat and the soil of coastal plateaus are eminently propitious for its propagation.

It is usually planted at the end of the rainy season.  It is grown in rows on supports of stout straight posts on which it climbs and twines.  A mulch of overlapping coconut husks at the base of the plant helps retain moisture in the soil and is rich in potassium.

The vanilla vine can attain a length of 100m as it grows, winding its tendrils round supports in an epiphytical languor of orchidaceous lust!  It flowers the second year after planting, in the early morning from September to October.  Its flowers, the colour of ripening lemons, then appear to be frozen in a state of lingering desire, and if they are not pollinated immediately they drop, as if lacking the patience to tarry or the kindness to lend their serene colours to the natural landscape.  Or perhaps, discourteously refusing the invasive touch of human hands.  The pollen of the vanilla flower is covered by an anther and the stigma is protected by a covering shield, the rostellum. Before the pollen can be placed on the pistil the rostellum must be lifted.  This is pressed under the stamen with a splinter of wood the size of a toothpick and by pressing with the thumb and finger, the pollen is brought into contact with the stigma.  Yes, a very intimate and usually fruitful encounter effected by artificial pollination. Thereafter, the flower withers but remains attached to the ovary, which increases in size.  Four to six weeks after pollination, the pods reach their full size (4 – 9 inches) and after nine to ten months they reach full maturity, which by then they are ready to be harvested.

Just before the pods are ripe, they are cut from the plant and subjected to a curing process that requires an inordinate amount of care, perseverance and patience, attributes that vanilla growers are not bereft of.

The pods are plunged into containers full of boiling water for 2-3 minutes and then they are drained and wrapped in dark cotton cloth.  They will by now acquire a deeper brown coloration and become quite supple and the development of an aroma becomes perceptible.  The pods are then laid out on cloths and exposed to the sun for several hours over a period of several days. The last stage in the curing process involves slow drying in the shade for a period of 2-3 months, and the pods will by then be one third if their original weight because of dehydration.  Next, the pods are stored in closed boxes for many weeks to permit the full development of the desired aroma and flavour.  At the end of the curing process the pods are usually long, fleshy, supple, very dark brown to black in colour, somewhat oily in appearance, strongly aromatic and free from scars and blemishes.

Much of the vanilla entering Western markets are used for the preparation of vanilla extract therefore the appearance of the pods is not of prime importance. Basically, vanilla extracts is made by macerating chopped vanilla pods with ethyl alcohol.  It goes without saying that because vanilla is a very labour-intensive agricultural product, vanilla is expensive.  Sometimes exorbitantly expensive.  No one can dispute that vanilla has one of the most complex tastes in the world.  Its unique flavour and aroma is such because vanilla contains over 250 organic components.  The kind of soil and climate in which it is grown, the stage at which the pods are picked and how it is cured and dried will have an effect of an infinitesimal degree on the flavour of the vanilla.

And indeed, its flavour is well preferred by pastry cooks who will never dare to risk not using it in their chocolate soufflés.  From the simplest to the most exotic confectionery concoctions, the distinctive taste of vanilla seems to triumph over the other flavours with which it blends so compatibly, to create a subliminal effect on the taste buds.

No wonder.  The vine has its roots in antiquity.  The story of vanilla begins long ago and very far away in the primeval tropical rainforests of Mexico…back to the time of the Mayan civilization during the 1st millennium when under the control of theocratic rulers art, architecture, mathematics, engineering and astronomy were more advanced than of any other civilization in the new world. The Mayas used vanilla to flavour their beverages.  Indians living in the vast area of the Amazon basin of South America cultivated the plants and used the pods to season their food, and even made medicine from them.  Being indigenous to South-Eastern Mexico, Guatemala, and other parts of Central America, vanilla grows wild in the forests and is pollinated by bees of the genuses Melapona and trigona, and by humming birds. In their magnificent city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) the Aztecs created gardens of rare and beautiful plants, and vanilla vines.

Montezuma, the last Aztec emperor served vanilla flavoured chocolate made of crushed cocoa beans and water flavoured with vanilla in golden goblets to his guests.  When Hernando Cortés and his 500 men invaded Mexico in 1519 they were captivated by the appetizingly spicy taste of the strange beverage that was alien to their own culture.  The soldiers couldn’t resist taking the ingredients and some specimens of vanilla orchids back home where they created quite a furore among lovers of ornamental horticulture.  And by happenstance, chocolate was also introduced into Europe! Throughout the 16th century the zealous conquistadors took tons of vanilla pods into Spain, where factories were established for the manufacture of chocolate flavoured with vanilla.  The Spaniards kept their discovery of vanilla secret for almost half a century.  It was when travellers took chocolate into England in 1650 that knowledge of vanilla quickly spread across Europe.  At that time imperial powers were vying to have a monopoly on the spice trade, especially with new navigational routes that had opened to facilitate transport of the precious commodities.

In 1733 vanilla plants were taken to England and were then lost.  Not surprisingly, since most gardeners had developed a passionate obsession for that exotic orchid from the ‘Sierra Madre occidental mountains of the Mayas’!

At the beginning of the 19th century it was re-introduced and grown in the gardens of the notable botanist Charles Greville at Paddington. Greville supplied cuttings to the Botanical Garden in Paris.

It is possible that vanilla plantations of Réunion, Mauritius, Madagascar originated from a single cutting of 3 to 5ft that was introduced into Réunion in 1822, from the Botanical Garden in Paris.

In 1827, vanilla cultivation started in Mauritius.  It was forty years later, in 1868, the year that yet another British commissioner William Hales Franklyn was appointed for both islands which were then under the hegemony of the British Empire as one single protectorate, that vanilla planifolia arrived in Seychelles.  It was one of the first agricultural industries of the islands, and was gradually to become a source of Colonial revenue in the Indian Ocean and the basis of much private wealth. Every estate owner allocated a few acres of land to the cultivation of vanilla in anticipation of substantial profits.

Indeed vanilla was a source of fortune for most property owners who until then had been earning revenue solely from the coconut industry.  Almost nine years after its belated introduction into Seychelles, the first batch of vanilla was exported abroad: 60kilos at SR 1, 195.00 A puny amount it might seem but not when one considers that it requires one thousand green pods to get three kilos of cured vanilla. Thus the harvest for the year of 1877 was around 48,000 green pods.  Impressive for an incipient industry of that epoch. As demand for vanilla increased, cultivation throughout Seychelles intensified, estate plantations expanded and employed more workers. An acre of land accommodated 1,5000 to 2000 vanilla vines with each vine producing an average of 80 pods. To encourage the reproduction of inflorescence in the axils of the leaves on the hanging branches, the top 7 to 10 cm of vine was usually pinched out 6 to 8 months before the flowering season. Besides the main island of Mahé, vanilleries were created on Praslin and La Digue and Silhouette women and children were employed to do the delicate task of pollinating the flowers. A worker pollinated 1,000 to 1,500 flowers each day earning 7 cents per day. An estate laborer earned 12 rupees per month whereas women who were employed for curing the pods were paid 9 rupees per month. For packet tying, women earned SR 2 per 100 bundles of 50 pods each. A good vanillery produced for up to 12 years. On Praslin and on La Digue schoolchildren were employed as ‘birdscarers’ during flowering season to frighten away black birds (merl), which were a constant nuisance to hillsides plantations.

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Photo from National Archives A Seychellois Vanilla grower in the early 20th century

Production and profit increased with each successive harvest. In 1878 147 kilos at SR 2,950, in 1880, 1,713 kilos at SR 22,8777.  The end of the nineteenth century culminated in a veritable fin de siècle bonanza for the vanilla industry of Seychelles.  41,835kilos (over 40 tons) of vanilla was exported at SR 1,338,720. The average price per kilo of vanilla was SR 32.00.  That was 1899 and the number of inhabitants stood at around 17,000.  That same year the amount of coconuts harvested was 983,418, which brought in SR 19, 667.00.  A case of the vanilla vine towering over the coconut palm! Some workers even contracted vanilism… Vanilism?  It was irritation of the skin, nasal mucus membrane and conjunctiva caused by mites found in vanilla pods.  In 1901 the largest quantity of vanilla ever exported in one single year came to 71,8999 kilos but the vagaries of the competitive spice market and fluctuation in prices resulted in a value of SR 1,108,792.  Yet this did not mar the period of prosperity for the vanilla growers.  By the turn of the century Seychelles was exporting more vanilla than all other British colonies put together, and the countries of the world were continuously discovering new uses for the flavour and aroma of this exotic spice.  In fact, vanilla had become the most sought – after flavoring agent. Many Europeans had discovered the distinctive taste of vanilla for the first time in 1837 when a Birmingham chemist Alfred Bird had invented custard powder in response to his wife’s plea for a dish that did not contain eggs.  He used vanilla extract as a flavoring agent and it immediately appealed to the public’s taste which was later indulged by vanilla ice cream, that seemingly most mundane of all desserts!

In 1903 Seychelles got its first governor Ernest Bickham Sweet – Escott.  He arrived at a time when the vanilla industry was at its acme of productivity and the paramount source of revenue for the British protectorate islands.  He bewildered and baffled plantation owners when he judiciously cautioned them against relying entirely on vanilla cultivation and neglecting other agricultural crops.

His foresight and prudence was well founded.  In Europe scientists in laboratories were frantically searching for a cheaper alternative to pure vanilla: Synthetic vanilla.  In fact long before Seychelles exported its first batch of vanilla pods, synthetics had already been made in Germany, in 1870 from Caniferin, a sugar component that makes some pines smell a little like vanilla.  Later, Lignin Vanillin a by-product of the paper industry was chemically treated to resemble the taste of pure vanilla extract (!) and Ethyl Vanilin, which is a coal – tar derivative and stronger than pure vanilla also succeeded in pleasing the public’s palate! Because the entire planet, it appeared, had been seduced by its savour, nature’s supply couldn’t be relied upon.

By the end of the 1920’s, advances in science and technological aptitude had opened new frontiers of knowledge and in Seychelles the new generation of vanilla growers would not have been able to spell or pronounce the name of their nemesis: methylpotocatechuic aldehyde! Euphemistically known as ‘artificial vanilla’, yes ‘ersatz’ vanilla!

It was consternation and disappointment for planters who almost overnight found themselves faced with an over-stocked market and a falling off in demand. A kilo of vanilla had dropped to SR 5.00.

Throughout the entire 20th century vanilla flowers continued to bloom in their hundreds, in their thousands but the industry never recuperated.  Nevertheless we will always enjoy the flavor of vanilla, and always in a modicum minimum because a hint of vanilla seems to epitomize the highest form of gustatory bliss. And the tropical beauty of the Seychelles seems forever imbued with the sweet fragrance of its fruits, as if the aroma of its quondam days of glory remains to linger.

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Dried Vanilla Pods

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Green Vanilla Pods

 

 

 

Information sources: Seychelles National Archives (Colonial Reports)

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