A short history
In 1860, a staunch Scottish preacher named Samuel MacFarlane and his wife made a stopover in Lifou. On the ship, they were carrying some vanilla plants, originally from Madagascar. The couple left these specimens on the island, under the care of the Ahmelewedr clan, and also passed on essential instructions for their cultivation: how to make growing frames, plant stem cuttings and prune them as they grow. Unfortunately, for obscure reasons, the fate of the vanilla in Lifou faded into obscurity for more than a century, only resurfacing in the 1980’s. Nowadays, however, Vanilla planifolia has earned the status of Lifou’s « brown gold ».
The director of the Food Processing Centre, SODIL (Société de Développement des Îles Loyauté) recounts the history to us: « PIL (Province des Îles Loyauté - the Province of the Loyalty Islands) opened the Vanilla House in 2011, in response to producers’ needs related to equipment, fields and marketing the final product. The sector is supported by different entities, such as the provincial government, the Arbofruits company and the Vanilla House (which SODIL administers). »
Vanilla production in the Loyalty Island is supervised with a view to insuring an authentic quality control process: « Loyalty Islands vanilla is a registered trademark. »
Up until now, ten farms have been certified by the Biocalédonia association, in conformance to the standards specified by NOAB (Norme Océanienne d’Agriculture Biologique).
The marriage:arranged and organic
Vanilla cultivation is a meticulous and delicate operation. The pods are grown on extensive family farms, taking advantage of natural shade, and using organic methods (no chemical fertilizers or pesticides). The flowers, which in fact are a type of orchid, are extremely fragile and only bloom once a year, between September and December, always in the morning and then just for a few hours. This leaves the farmers with precious little time to cross-pollinate them. This operation is carried out manually and must be performed whilst the flowers are open: any flower which has not been fertilized will die that very evening. The pods reach maturity six to nine months later, at which time they will be harvested by hand. After that, they are scalded in hot water in order to halt ripening. Next, they are dried and sorted according to size. Finally, the pods are packed into watertight crates, which protect them from external humidity during the final maturation stage.
A coordinated production
On all three islands, the still-green pods are purchased by Arbofruit, and transported to Hnathalo, in Lifou. There, they will finish maturing and be processed and packaged in different forms, or be used as an ingredient in food products such as vanilla sugar or vanilla salt, which will then enter the consumer market. The number of producers on the three islands varies from year to year. Up until 2014, these were increasing, to a peak of 225, but this subsequently fell to 150 in 2017. By volume, Lifou island is the largest producer.
In 2011, the Loyalty Islands Province created a cooperative called Maison de la Vanille, in an effort to harmonize production and increase its quality. Maison de la Vanille buys vanilla beans from growers in Maré, Lifou and Tiga islands. The cooperative then dries and processes the fragrant pods in its facilities located in Hnathalo (Lifou). The beans are placed in sweating boxes and slowly cured for over a year. “La vanille des îles Loyauté” is now a registered trademark and a wide variety of derived products are marketed. In addition to vanilla powder, gourmets can buy salt, sugar, honey and liquors…all crafted with the precious bean.
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High quality vanilla
There is a significant worldwide demand for vanilla. Madagascar dominates the market, but Caledonian vanilla is internationally recognized for its exceptional quality. As one producer points out: « Elsewhere, they prioritize quantity, whereas here we have decided to emphasize quality. » In recent years, problems involving vanilla pod production in the Indian Ocean have led to a shortage on the global market and prices have gone through the roof. In the words of another Caledonian producer: « Back in 2013, when I went to agricultural fairs, I was selling the most expensive vanilla in the world. These days, my product is cheaper than other vanillas of poorer quality, so I have no problem selling it. »
Where can I visit a vanilla plantation?
- Félix and Jeanine Bolé (Mucaweng), who also have a garden full of tropical flowers. Jeanine will be delighted to offer a tour of her botanical kingdom. She is tireless! Entrance fee: 500 XFP.
- La Vanille Joyeuse with Lues Rokuad of the Mu Tribe (+687 45.15.79). Entrance fee : 500 XFP.
"Text by Jean Francis Clair"
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