The best way to see all of the special places in Taha’a is by tour and the best tour guide is Noah from Vanilla Tour Taha’a. We signed up with 4 other boats and had a total of 8 people on the 4×4 adventure. The first stop is a vanilla bean plantation.
This post will focus on the vanilla bean and next week we will share the rest of our escapades.
It takes a certain artistic know how to grow this exquisite spice. It is a skill that is acquired over time and with great experience. Taha’a generates nearly 80% of all the vanilla in French Polynesia. There are two philosophies to growing vanilla: (1) organically as nature would grow and (2) in a controlled environment. When we were on Huahine we saw a small controlled grower. (See previous blog “Safari Tour Mario from 10 September” for the controlled environment vanilla bean experience.)
Noah is a vanilla farmer and firmly believes that they best way to grow the vanilla vines is organically as naturally as possible. But let’s back up for a moment. Where do you think vanilla beans come from? The primary sources of the vanilla bean are Mexico and Madagascar. However, a few years ago Madagascar’s vanilla bean crops were destroyed so other areas, like Taha’a have flourished in production.
Mexico and Madagascar grow their beans outside and allow nature to take its course. The beans are grown around a support tree. During flowering season, a small bee will help pollinate the flower which will then grow a bean.
TAHA’As ORGANIC PROCESS
The organic or natural process in Taha is similar to that in Mexico and Madagascar. They take a healthy vine and attach it to a support tree to climb on. The vine will take 2-3 years to grow roots and loop around the tree before flowers start to bloom. The photo below shows the vanilla bean wrapping around the support tree.
Once the vine is mature (2-3 years of age) it will flower. The vines require a stressor to flower like a change in the weather. Flowering season is typically between July and October. Each vine will produce 10-15 flowers and each flower will produce a vanilla bean if pollinated properly. Flowers will only bloom on the vines that are hanging down.
The Polynesians do not have the small bee to pollinate the flower so they actually do this process by hand (see above photo). This process is called “vanilla wedding.” They gently open the flower and remove the top of the it to access the pollen from the pistol (male). They then open the flap of the stamean (female) to insert the pollen.
They only pollinate 8 of the 10-15 flowers to ensure the vine does not become over stressed. Remember, each pollinated flower will provide a vanilla bean. The stem of the flower becomes the bean which takes about 9 months to grow.
The bean will notify the grower when it is ready to be picked by turning black. The bottom of the bean will start to turn black and within 5 days the entire bean will be black which means it is ready to be picked. It is during this period that they are the most aromatic.
FERMENTING THE VANILLA BEAN
Once the beans are picked, they are sold to a drier. There are over 200 vanilla bean farmers and only 4-5 driers. Typically, it takes 4 vanilla beans to make 1 kilo of dried vanilla beans. The farmer will get paid 20,000 xpf ($200) per kilo which does not include the drier.
The drier will take the vanilla beans, spread them out on a cotton cloth and lay them out in the sun. They will then flip them every 30 minutes for for 3-4 hours per day. At the end of the sunning time, they will wrap them up in the cotton cloth and store them until the next day. The beans are massaged to help them ferment. This process takes 3-4 months. The beans are then ready to sell.
A dried vanilla bean will last up to 15-20 years when stored in a sealed glass jar. That is if it was dried and fermented properly. Once you purchase a dried bean, you can boil it to get the vanilla extract out, let it cool and store it back in its jar. You can do this 6-8 times before you need to cut the vanilla bean to use in other ways.
As you can tell it is a very labor-intensive process that requires a great deal of skill and patience. It takes up to 4 years to begin to see a return in your investment. I hope you too have a new level of respect for everything vanilla.
Stay tuned for more adventures on Taha’a as we eat flowers, get a tatoo, visit a distillery, see part of the Heiva, and learn about health benefits of local fruits and plants.