a visit to a vanilla plantation on reunion island

vanilla beans

vanilla beans

Vanilla is my favourite spice. I love it so much I named my car after it and dedicated an entire chapter in my book ‘Sweet’ to its exotic goodness. It also plays tricks on your mind. When you smell it your brain registers that it is sweet when in fact it it’s not, and when infused into other food it can send you straight to a delicious heavenly place.

vanilla drying

vanilla extract

I was thrilled to get the chance to visit a vanilla plantation whilst on my recent trip to Reunion in September. We stayed at the luxurious 5 star resort Lux* St Gilles while visiting this wild Indian Ocean Island which we explored for 3 action packed days. You can see a few of my pics from the trip here. 

Lux St Gilles Reunion

a vanila vine

vanilla pods on the vine

Vanilla is an incredibly labour intensive crop so it’s no surprise that it is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. From hand pollination through the harvesting, curing, drying and the maturation phase, human hands comes in contact with vanilla. The pods are ultimately hand measured, sorted and packed, and the bigger and fatter they are the higher the grade. You will see in the above picture that the vanilla pods at La Vanilleraie (the co-op we visited) are even hand stamped with the name of the farmer.

Vanilla drying, Reunion Island

vanilla beans being hand sorted and graded

vanilla packaging

vanilla beans being hand sorted and graded

vanilla beans being hand sorted and graded

vanilla beans being hand sorted and graded

Vanilla drying, Reunion Island

vanilla beans being measured

vanilla beans packed in bundles

vanilla ice cream

10 facts about vanilla that you may not have known:

  1. The name Bourbon vanilla originates from Reunion Island, which was originally named Île Bourbon.
  2. Vanilla is part of the orchid family, and is the only orchid with edible fruit.
  3. A vanilla pod forms after a vanilla flower is pollinated within 12 hours of opening, and it is due to the necessity for accuracy that flowers are hand pollinated. Bees could do the job (if they were around) but their hit rate is much lower at around 10%.
  4. After the flower is pollinated it closes and starts forming into a bean pod which takes around 6 months to reach the degree of ripeness to harvest.
  5. Vanilla pods need to be harvested at their peak, any time longer they start to split and the quality is compromised.
  6. Once harvested they are dipped in water that has been heated to 65C for 3 minutes and then rapidly drained. They are then wrapped in padded blankets allowing them to sweat. It’s during this stage that they take on their brown colour.
  7. Vanilla is then dried. Firstly in the sun for about 10 days and then in the shade for 2 – 3 months.
  8. Dried vanilla pods are then packed away in maturation trunks for 12 months where their complex aroma (made up of over 180 molecules) is developed.
  9. There are over 110 species of vanilla and only 15 of them contain flavour inside the beans. Only 3 of those are good enough to use in the vanilla industry.
  10. It takes roughly 2 years from harvest to the point where vanilla is sold on Reunion Island, making it one of the top quality producers in the world.

* The following food pics are taken by myself and all come from my book Sweet – Published by Penguin Random House

vanilla products

Vanilla kipferl

vanilla doghnuts

floating islands in creme anglaise

vanilla shortbread with chocolate middles

Vanilla flavour partners

If you are wondering what the best partners are for vanilla take a look at these ideas (* Source The Flavour Bible – Karen Page & Andrew Dorenburg). There are a few obvious and a few less obvious.

What is the most unusual food you have tasted with vanilla?

Baked goods – cakes and cookies

Allspice, almonds, apples, apricots

bay leaf, beef, berries, brown butter, butterscotch

caramel, ricotta cheese. chicken, chiles, chocolate. cilantro, cinnamon, cloves

cream and ice cream

cream cheese, custards, eggs, figs fish

Ginger, honey, lemon juice, lobster, Mascaropone, melon

Mexican cuisine

Mint mussels, nutmeg, nuts, orange, peaches, pears, plus, rosemary, saffron, scallops, strawberries


Tamarind, tea, root vegetables, balsamic vinegar, whiskey, yoghurt.

vanilla french toast

Vanilla drying, Reunion Island




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  1. Thanks Becky Im so glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  2. Thanks Sarah – 🙂

  3. I too, am a vanilla fan 🙂 What an interesting post Sam and stunning pics.

  4. This is seriously interesting Sam! When in South Africa I was told by Heather Brink who works for Crest Chemicals and often stayed in our guest house, that there are more than 70 different vanilla’s in SA! We miss our Moir’s here in NZ and buy it from SA shops! I bought two large bottles again yesterday in Auckland and one of the other clients in the shop commented… old habits die hard! Stay well and bake well! C x

  5. Suzanne Alberts says:

    I really enjoy your food blog very much. Your pictures are very beautiful and you have a very unique take on food and cooking . This article on vanilla production has a lot of interesting facts about vanilla and its production . The pictures are beautiful as usual ! Great article!

  6. Jane Campbell says:

    I love vanilla. I wish this post had smell-a-vision!

  7. Thanks Jane – I wish I could press a button and have hte aroma piped through my house all the time 🙂

  8. Thank you for the lovely kind words Suzanne. Made my day 🙂

  9. HI Carolie, wow I cant believe 70 vanilla’s? – do you mean essence brands? I tend to only use vanilla extract these days. I dont enjoy the slightly tinny taste you get from essence.I also buy it in bulk a litre at time from The Vanilla Man here. It makes it more affordable as I use so much. Im off to make mince pies now. Really getting my baking mojo on this year which Im loving. sam xx

  10. Thanks Lynne. Im always trying to hunt down pods and bulk extract.

  11. Wow,I had no idea vanilla was so precious and required so much effort to harvest. The food industry uses vanilla in so many meals that I’ve always taken it for granted that it’s easy to source

  12. Hi Zaid – yes its sometimes even regarded as a ‘plain’ flavour (as in ice cream) but it really is so important as a spice in desserts especially

  13. Loved this post, Sam! Since the vanilla pods we get here in SA are sometimes ‘old’ and quite dry, do the ‘fresh’ ready-to-use pods smell or taste any different? Just curious 🙂

  14. Hi Katelyn – they smell the same just the pods are softer and juicer when fresher so will be a little more potent.

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