Reunion Island (Ile de La Réunion) and Vanilla

The start of 2021, another year of the pandemic and this incessant rain has had us contemplating when our next visit to Reunion Island will be (Ile de La Reunion or simply La Reunion in French). This incredibly dynamic and multicultural island is off the East Coast of Madagascar, near Mauritius. It’s a place that once you visit, will keep you wanting to come back for the lush scenery, warm people, and their ‘joie de vivre’.

One of the first people we met with was a Chef named Will Dex who had gone to culinary school at Ferrandi in Paris, like myself. We discussed local cuisine while at a picnic, sitting under the palms drinking punch (rum based fruit cocktail). My husband’s cousin, Hugo, promised to introduce us to his friend Tony, who would teach me how to make a real creole Réunionese carry (curry). This would end up being one of my favorite days on this trip. After cooking, we ate on banana leaves in their home with lots of friends and family, plenty of punch, and great stories about life on the island. I’ve never felt so welcomed by strangers. There would be many amazing shared experiences with the Reunionnais, but this topped the list.

Getting There :
The nearest airport at Saint-Denis has non-stop flights from Paris and Marseille, France on Air France and Air Austral. The flights are around 11 hours long (generally overnight) and you only change three time zones. Luckily, the sun is generally always shining so it’s a great way to start an extra long day!

You’ll want to rent a car while you are visiting, there are too many places that you’ll need to drive to for access. The roads in the interior can be hectic with low or no railing before an enormous drop. It is also required to honk as you take a turn to remind drivers that you are there and to be sure they are in their lane, so, not for the weak of heart!

When to Go :

As Reunion is in the Southern Hemisphere, you will want to go October-March for the best weather (their summer). The coast gets incredibly hot, but inland keeps cool. The main language is French and you will often hear a creole version of French as well. There is very little (if any) English spoken, but people are generally very friendly and helpful.

History :

The actively volcanic island has a fascinating history, when first discovered there was very little animal life and no humans had ever lived on it. There were no predators until humans arrived, which is why the thriving dodo birds were eventually wiped out of existence. The French East India Company started a coffee plantation in the beginning of the 18th century, which is when the first group of settlers arrived, thus, the history of humans on the Island is rather brief. Until the French Revolution the island was known as Ile Bourbon (Royal Family of France). The British gained control of the Island for a short bit in the early 19th century, introducing sugar cane as a cash crop. Vanilla was also introduced around this time. When slavery was ended, very quickly the population integrated and the once highly segregated society was dissolved.

Not shown, the sheer drops while driving into the center of the island!

Agriculture and food production are still some of the top money making industries on the island. Today, you will see one of the more blended societies in the world, with European, African, Chinese and Indian cultures being the main influences. The incredible Réunionnaise cuisine represents this.

What to Do :

You’ll want to go swimming, the Indian Ocean is a dreamy temperature and the waters are crystal clear. Bring snorkeling gear as well, because you will see amazing fish and corals right at the shore. There is one major cavate, shark attacks are not unknown of if you swim outside of reefed areas so be sure to only swim where it is deemed safe / Les plus belles plages de l’île de la Réunion (974) lagon et sable blanc (tropicalhome.fr)

Visit the ‘Cirques’, which are old volcanic holes in the middle of the island which are filled with lush green valleys that make for an insanely scenic drive. There are also small interior villages, like Hell-bourg, you can stop to along the way, that have been inhabited by the poor whites of the society since the beginning (the poorer you were, the further inland you lived). Mafate is so isolated that helicopters need to deliver food to them. Cilaos is the only thermal spa on the island, although the buildings are rather aged. I love the architecture of the tin roofs, large porches and intricate woodwork found on the older homes / The Cirques of Reunion Island

The Kelonia Turtle Sanctuary used to be a turtle farm to harvest their shells, however this has long been outlawed and they now focus on conservation. There was an enormous amount of shell leftover, which can still legally be used to create items for purchase, like pocket knives. Visits are 8 EURO adults and 4 EURO kids / Kélonia – Réunion des Musées Régionaux – Centre de soins des tortues (museesreunion.fr) / 46 Rue du Gaulle, 97436 Saint-Leu / +262 262 34 81 10

Beautiful sea turtles

Spend the day on a boat and go fishing for incredible fish with the help of local professionals ‘Peche au Gros‘. We went out one morning and came back with plenty of mahi-mahi (dorade coryphenes), albacore and bonita tuna. You get to keep some and the rest of your catch goes to the owner of the boat to be sold / PÊCHE AU GROS ÎLE DE LA RÉUNION SAINT-GILLES , SAINT-PIERRE (pecheaugrosilereunion.com) / Valle du Port / +262 692 64 59 23 / techer@hotmail.com

Visit a Vanilla Farm :

While the origins of vanilla are Central and South American, prior attempts to grow the beans in Europe always failed. What the farmers didn’t understand at the time was that the natural pollinators were a special species of bees that didn’t live in Europe. Eventually, a young, orphaned slave by the name of Edmund Albias, created the hand pollination method in 1841 at the age of 12, and completely transformed the vanilla industry (for more information see below). While this process is incredibly laborious, it is the process still used today.

Vaniila planifolia is a native species of Mexico, the species of vanilla orchid grown on Reunion, and the vanilla we know today as ‘Bourbon’. There are different varieties grown in other parts of the world, but this is the most common variety of vanilla sold worldwide.

After the plant is properly pollinated, the fruit will grow and once ripe, will need to be picked, allow to ferment by laying in the sunlight, and eventually to dry (not completely) to achieve the classic vanilla flavor we know. It’s a year-long process to get one bean, which makes you understand why the price for this spice is so high, just under saffron (the most expensive). The bean will then be ‘graded’ into higher and lower quality beans. The ones you buy should not look large and plump, in fact the better tasting ones will be drier (but not hard). Store fresh beans in a cool, dry, dark place. If you do end up with a hard bean, wrap it in a damp paper towel and microwave for a quick five seconds. Use the point of a knife to slide down the side and scrape out the interior, if infusing milk be sure to put in the exterior of the bean as well.

Reunion Island is renowned for it’s high quality product. The best vanilla will come from here, but most of the vanilla sold in the world that says ‘Bourbon‘ is actually from Madagascar (the largest producer of vanilla in the world). Like many highly sought spices, quality and authenticity is a challenge.

We went to the Cooperative ProVanille which had a nice visit of the vanilla farm, store and plenty of interaction with the charming producers to ask questions. Boutique open from 9h-12h and 1330-17h / 21 Route Nationale 2, 97412 Bras Panon / About us – Provanille / +262 (0)2 62 51 71 02 / provanille.reunion@orange.fr

To learn more about Edmund Albias and the history of slavery on the island, be sure to read online the website (or visit) the Musee de Villele in Reunion Island. Unfortunately, not much of his story was recorded and during his lifetime people tried to claim his discovery for themselves. While he would die free, he would die penniless, with even the location of his exact grave unknown. The website is equally worth visiting, with a very complete history of the evolution on the island / Domaine Panon-Desbassyns, 97435 Saint-Gilles-Les-Hauts / Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9h30-12h30 and 13h30-17h30 / Mémorial à Edmond Albius | Société de plantation, histoire et mémoires de l’esclavage à La Réunion (portail-esclavage-reunion.fr)

On the West Coast there is a cemetery for pirates and slaves, their final resting place certainly one of the most scenic and peaceful I’ve seen / Le Cimetière marin et le cimetière des esclaves (ouest-lareunion.com) And if you are lucky enough, you might get to find the treasure of famous pirate La Buse which is allegedly buried somewhere on the island.

What to eat :

Curry, called ‘carry or cari‘ on the island and Rougail sausage is what you will find all over the island. The Reunionaise style is Tamal, Indian at heart but which has local influences. It’s unique and more rustic than what you might be accustomed to, but it’s the spirit of the island on a plate. Wash it down with a Dodo Burbon beer. There are vans and pit stops all over the island, you just get you plate and pull up a chair under one of the sweeping trees, and eat.

One of my favorites are the ‘bouchon‘, spiced pork meat in dough that is cooked via steam and served in portions of around six bite sized pieces.

Accras de Morue are also found in Reunion, typical snack of salted cod that fried, which is also found in Portugal and Spain.

Some of the incredible products on the island, from litchi to the smaller Victoria pineapples, are the best tasting fruits you’ll ever try. There is also the chouchou (also know as chayotte or christophine in the West Indies) which is delicious cut and boiled, then covered with a béchamel with curcuma, and baked in a gratin dish. The plant grows like a weed, even in SW France where I live.

What to Buy :

Vanilla, of course. Try to buy directly from the farm and avoid the potentially inauthentic type sold in the markets.

A print by one of the local artists or photographers, like the talented Edgar Photographie who takes stunning black and white images of life on the island / Edgar photographie/Les Editions – Edgar Photographie

Jewelry from local artist Julia Fabregues of Wild Jewelry’, she has stunningly delicate pieces that you can order from anywhere but who can also make you unique pieces / Accueil | BUSINESS NAME (wildjewelry.shop)

Where to Stay :

We really were so lucky, my husbands god-parents are incredible hosts and took such good care of us! If you don’t have wonderful family to host you, you’ll want to rent a house. The hotels are sub-par for the most part in comparison to the mainland. As tempting as the coast is, try to find someplace further up and with a pool to avoid the intense heat of the day. The East part of the Island tends to be more populated than the West and will have more of the places to see and do.

Best hosts

Read More :

The Bittersweet Story of Vanilla | Science | Smithsonian Magazine

Homepage | Société de plantation, histoire et mémoires de l’esclavage à La Réunion (portail-esclavage-reunion.fr)

Edmond ALBIUS, l’esclave prodige. (Extrait) – YouTube

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