Wednesday 25 August 2010

Not so ordinary

I've just finished off the left-over rice pudding: it was calling to me through the quiet house. I thought I would only tidy up the edges a bit, but that was never going to work, and the dish is now scraped clean. It was a particularly good one, which I'm putting down to the fact that I used real Mauritian vanilla extract instead of the cheap local make of essence.
Whenever I read a recipe that calls for a vanilla pod, my heart sinks a little - but now I know why they're so expensive. The vanilla plant is an orchid, did you know that? It's native to Mexico, where it's pollinated by a local species of bee that's specially adapted to the vanilla flower: that's why attempts to grow it elsewhere continually failed, even after this fact was discovered. But in 1841 a slave named Edmond Albius, who was only 12 years old, worked out a way of pollinating the flowers by hand. And where did this happen? Reunion Island!
We went to a really interesting plantation there called Escale Bleue, where a very jolly man called Aime Leichnig demonstrated (with a commentary including a series of faintly risque jokes) how to do the pollination. It's ironic that Edmond's discovery led to even more work for the slaves, crouched over the vines fiddling with tiny flowers.
Once the grown pods, the size of round beans, are picked, they're dipped in hot water then dried in the sun, turned several times a day and shaded if they're drying too fast - they're constantly being checked. Then Aime wraps them in cloth and puts them into polystyrene chests to mature for 9 months (more jokes), being regularly sniffed, until they're ready to sell 12-18 months after picking. So there you have it: labour intensive.

We saw them in bundles at the markets in both Reunion and Maritius where they're also grown as a crop: 20 euros for a bunch of 100. That's $36 - whereas in the local supermarket here, they're $7.44 for a measly three. Rip-off! There was an enterprising young man with a machine at the beachside market in St-Gilles busily sealing them inside plastic bags for tourists wanting to take them home through customs. Clever.

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