Destinations / Eat and Drink / France / Reunion Island

La Vanilleraie: Grow Vanilla on Historical Lands

Located within the stables of a former sugarcane estate, La Vanilleraie stands as one of the most successful vanilla production sites on Reunion Island. Its founder aims to elevate Reunionese vanilla to the status of a luxury product recognized worldwide.

Upon arrival, you are greeted by a sight: a 400-meter lane lined with towering coconut trees, reminiscent of the bygone sugar estates in activity on the island less than a century ago. However, the Domaine du Grand Hazier in Sainte-Suzanne no longer cultivates sugarcane; instead, it hosts vanilla vines growing on posts under green nets to provide ample shade. This transformation is the work of Bertrand Côme, a visionary entrepreneur who embarked on a mission to establish Reunionese vanilla as an esteemed product beyond the island’s borders.

A guided tour through a vanilla production

For those interested in local products and eager to delve into the world of this rare and highly prized plant, I recommend booking a guided tour at La Vanilleraie (call if you want to make sure the tour is available in English). The tours provide insights into the plant’s growth and the intricate, time-consuming process of harvesting and producing the premium dried vanilla pods sold on market stalls. Prepare to discover why it takes nearly two years to produce the vanilla we use in our culinary endeavours. You will never use vanilla pods the same way!

The guided tour begins in the vanilla fields, where visitors gain an understanding of the vine’s growth process. Next, a short film sheds light on the various stages of harvest, including boiling, drying, and meticulously selecting the finest pods—a process that can extend up to nine months. Subsequently, you’ll have the opportunity to observe the workshop’s equipment, used to navigate through these intricate steps. Since the blossoming season for vanilla occurs solely from June to October, visiting outside of these months may not showcase the full process, but witnessing the drying racks and boiling tanks is still interesting. The visit ends on the shop’s terrace, where a variety of vanilla-based products await eager shoppers.

Vanilla vines at La Vanilleraie

From the flower to the pod: a Reunionese legend

Vanilla boasts a profound connection to Reunion Island, as the industrialization of its cultivation was pioneered here. Thanks to the ingenuity of Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave who discovered the manual fertilization process of the vanilla flower, the history of this aromatic treasure took a transformative turn. Despite initial suppression due to societal prejudices, the truth ultimately prevailed, crediting Albius for his remarkable discovery. He is known today as the discoverer of vanilla fertilization.

A myth surrounding the slave’s accidental discovery exists, claiming he crushed a vanilla flower in anger, leading to the miraculous birth of fruits. However, Mr Côme explained to me that this theory is scientifically implausible, as the delicate membrane between the male and female organs of the vanilla flower must remain intact for fertilization to occur. Therefore, it is obvious that Albius’ achievement was the result of careful consideration and scientific experimentation, rather than a mere chance occurrence.

A vision for Reunion’s Bourbon vanilla

While “Bourbon vanilla” enjoys fame, not all Bourbon vanilla originates from Reunion Island. Presently, the majority of production comes from Madagascar, with a reputation for being less flavorful and of lower quality. Nonetheless, some small-scale producers on Reunion Island continue to cultivate vanilla, despite high production costs, including the Leichnig brothers and the ProVanille cooperative.

The founder of La Vanilleraie envisions a distinct path for Reunionese Bourbon vanilla. Mr. Côme’s vision involves meticulously selecting pods and forging partnerships with local producers. His approach to vanilla mirrors that of wine connoisseurs, as he seeks to identify diverse “terroirs” to offer quality vanilla with unique characteristics based on their origins and cultivation methods. Although this scientific project demands time and dedication, the vanilla grown on his estate has already earned recognition from several renowned chefs and awards at the International Agricultural Salon in Paris. I’m looking forward to witnessing La Vanilleraie’s future accomplishments in the epic adventure of Bourbon vanilla!

La Vanilleraie, Ste-Suzanne: practical information

How to get there?
By car from St-Denis, follow the highway towards the east in the direction of Ste-Suzanne. You will see a large sign indicating La Vanilleraie. Exit soon after and follow the smaller signs until you reach the coconut tree-alley.

When to go?
The best time to go is probably during the harvest season to get a chance to see the preparation process happening but it remains interesting at other dates.

Website for information and bookings

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