Sourcing Vanilla: A Trip Report Part 2
Before I left, I gave Jeanne Chan a sample of our chocolate we had made using her beans. Thrilled, she quickly scurried off to put it in a cool place for safekeeping. When she returned, she showed me other products that people had given to her that were made with her vanilla.
There were the usual, such as soaps, creams, and flavorings, as well as the unusual, such as Canadian maple syrup with a whole vanilla bean in it. She is clearly very excited to see what people make with the vanilla she cures at her little store.
It was getting towards the end of the day, so we negotiated the price for high-quality vanilla beans she had cured. All her transactions are handled in cash, so I had to go to the local bank. We set up a time for me to come back and visit her again.
On my return, Jeanne appeared very excited. She beckoned for me to sit down and asked me to wait “five minutes.” She quickly disappeared into the back of her store with her cell phone. Retuning, she said again, “five minutes.” About five minutes later, a man came through the door. At first, I thought she had arranged for him to translate, since this time, I had come alone. Instead, I learned that he was a writer for the local paper. and he wanted to write an article about our chocolate.
The Vanilla Queen Jeanne Chan curing vanilla behind her shop
A Tahitian girl sorting vanilla beans behind Jeanne Chan’s vanilla shop
The next half hour or so, we talked and shared our stories in Jeanne’s little shop. We took turns taking pictures, and I was told that the article would appear in the paper before I returned to the United States. On this visit, I had made sure to stop at the bank on the way, so I made sure that before I left, I picked up the agreed on vanilla at the price we had previously negotiated.
When I left her shop, I could not help but think how my little bundle was like a small bundle of black gold. My little package, though not very large, was very expensive. I thought about how I would be using it for our chocolate, and perhaps I might take a few beans home to make a Tahitian vanilla bean crème brulé.
Art Pollard and Jeanne Chan, the Queen of Vanilla in Tahiti
A vanilla-buying trip to Tahiti would fall short if a trip were not made to Le Vanillare, one of the newest vanilla plantations in Tahiti. Even so, it is receiving lots of attention for its fine-quality vanilla. In 2007, the plantation won the Medaille d’Or at the Agriculture Show in Paris for its vanilla. It has also been featured in numerous articles and television shows (such as The Food Hunter). I had been hearing about the plantation for quite some time, so getting to go there was a real treat.
Le Vanillare is unique in Tahiti. It not only grows its own vanilla but the product is cured there as well, something only a very small number of vanilla producers do. (Most grow their vanilla, then turn it over to a master curer, such as Jeanne Chan, for the curing of the vanilla.) In addition, Le Vanillare has wonderful new greenhouses with modern irrigation and a host of vanilla-related products. Its two proprietors, Yannick Wong and Alain Abel, now have the most modern vanilla plantation in Tahiti, and it is on the “must see” list for visitors to Raiatea, where tours are offered to the public as time allows.
Le Vanillare is found at the top of a small, almost hidden valley. It is marked only by a small roadside sign, and if you are not paying attention, you can easily miss it. The view from the Le Vanillare is incredible — the green volcanic mountains hem you in with a silence you almost can hear. When I arrived, Yannick came out to greet me. We had exchanged e-mails off and on for several years, and so it was nice to finally put a face to an email address. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he took me to their greenhouse so that I could see all they have done. Almost all vanilla grown around Raiatea and on Tahaa is grown outdoors using native plants such as tapioca or local trees to provide the structure for the vines to climb. Le Vanillare was one of the first vanilla plantations (if not the first) to use green houses to grow their vanilla. The greenhouses provide a whole host of benefits, such as being able to control the amount of light that reaches the vanilla vines. They love 50 percent shade, and a 50 percent mesh allows them to be grown under optimal light conditions. In addition, water misters strung overhead control the humidity in the greenhouse and water the vines as well.
Lone sign on the coastal road in front of Le Vanillare
Hand pollinating the vanilla orchid
The vines climb lattices that are created by stringing ropes that run in neat rows between posts throughout the greenhouse. By having nice trellises for the vines to climb on, the growers are able to grow more vanilla per square foot than do those who plant their vanilla outside on native plants. In addition, the greenhouse provides for uniform light and watering.
Up a small path is the building used to both cure and package the beans At the base is a small cement patio on which the beans are cured.
Vanilla is cured by placing the beans in the sunlight for a few hours each day. This causes the beans to “sweat,” and they become shiny from the oils that seep out through the skin. When they have sweated enough, the beans are wrapped up in cloth, are brought in, and placed in a sweat box. They continue to sweat in this state throughout the night, and the water that collects in the bottom is allowed to drain. The next day the process begins again. It can take up to six months of this process for vanilla to cure properly.
We went inside the curing and packaging building, where I met Yannick’s other partner, Alain, as well as other employees. As one can imagine, the smell of vanilla was immense. It was truly a treat to be able to see the operation in full production.
Yannick, Art, and Alain in one of Le Vanillere’s greenhouses
After Yannick finished showing me the greenhouses and the curing and packaging operation, I purchased a fairly large amount of vanilla beans to take back with me so that I could run my own flavor tests to see if it meets our strict flavor standards. I also purchased some of the vanilla extract, though I would not see that for over a month, since the extract is made in France (using the beans of Le Vanillare, of course).
My trip to Le Vanillare was an incredible, and I learned a lot about the operation. To be sure, I will be testing the beans (as well as the beans from a number of other vanilla growers) for possible use in our chocolate.
I spent the remainder of my trip visiting a number of farmers and their plantations, developing new friendships throughout both the islands of Raiatea and Tahaa.
One of the highlights of my trip occurred on my last day. One of the vanilla farmers took me to the head of the Apoomau River, where there is a sacred spring. People come from all over Polynesia to drink at this spring.
We drove up the mountain and pulled off on to a small dirt road. We hiked down the trail that disappeared mysteriously. A smaller trail darted off, and we followed it through the jungle, scurrying down fallen trees through the overbrush and over small brooks. I was glad to have a guide, since there was no way I could have traced this route on my own.
Eventually we arrived at the spring. You would not even know the spring was there unless someone showed you. The water flows from a small recess in the side of the hill as a small trickle and into the river. Additional springs flow from the river bottom and create small bursts of bubbles on the surface. We cleared out the fallen debris, and once the water had settled, we drank deeply. The water is slightly effervescent and very refreshing. I made my wish and thought of the generations of Tahitians who came to this same sacred spring with hope in their hearts that their prayers and desires would be fulfilled. Perhaps, my wish will be fulfilled as well.
As we hiked back to the truck, I reflected on my time in Tahiti.
Drinking at the sacred spring at the head of the Apoomau River
We drove back and said our goodbyes. I hopped in my car and in my remaining time drove around the island and visited the two sacred maraes, pondering the places that over so short a period meant so much. Later that afternoon I boarded the plane and we took off. The plane hugged the coast for just a minute, flying over Uturoa and many of the places I had come to know. I looked for the small bay upon whose shores I had stayed, and while I’m not sure, I thought I caught a glimpse of my host’s house before our plane turned out to sea. While I looked forward to returning home, the flight was bittersweet—I had left newfound friendships, though I knew they would last a lifetime.