Regular readers of The Black Narcissus will know that I am a big vanilla lover, and that I recently cancelled a long-dreamed-of trip to Madagascar due to the horrific plagues of locusts that are currently threatening the country.

Although very disappointed by this (the sound of the words ‘Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla’, the majestically smooth type of vanilla grown in that mysterious country, has such a deeply gorgeous allure for me and I wanted to see it grown first hand there, go straight to the source), after a few days of frustrated locust-hate and self-indulgent mood swings, I decided to research further in my quest to scope the bean…..


The obvious place to look was perhaps Tahiti, as Tahitian vanilla is said to have a beautifully light, floral scent that some say makes it the best vanilla in the world; or else Mexico, the country to which vanilla is indigenous, and the only place where the orchids are pollinated by the original Melipona vanilla bee (they have to be pollinated by hand elsewhere….) Other research into vanilla production also suggested possibilities of Uganda, India, China, Sri Lanka..

Lush and paradisiacal though Tahiti might be, looking at photographs of the place, neither D nor I could get excited about the thought of going: luxe resorts for honeymooners: palm-trees, cocktails, snorkelling….not our kind of thing; too proscribed, ‘fashionable’, and removed from reality (and damn expensive to boot). Mexico we have been to before, and while the other vanilla producing countries did have some appeal, further sleuthing has led to another vanilla plan I am almost as excited about as my fabled voyage to Madagascar.


In August, then, we are going to be staying on an organic vanilla and cardamom farm in western Java for five days, a family run enterprise that specializes in pesticide-free vanilla production, cardamom, turmeric, curcuma (a kind of ginger), as well as fruit orchards such as star fruit,  mangoes and mangosteens.  It is primarily a vanilla plantation, however, and we will be staying there, learning every minutiae of  how to grow vanilla from conception to nurturing the orchids, to harvesting, curing and extraction, visiting the fields, digging in, and experiencing it all first hand.

This ‘agri-business vanilla course’ even includes vanilla classes for two days, including a text book (can you imagine? Like going back to school, only the subject is nothing but vanilla (and cardamom, another smell I adore…quite excited about seeing those little scented critters being wrenched from the trees as well…..) Vanilla teacher, diagrams on the blackboard, endless information about vanilla planifolia……I only hope there isn’t an examination at the end – although the idea of  cramming for my ‘vanilla finals’ isn’t so bad…







I am imagining that there will be so much vanilla everywhere that it will be like drowning in it, vanilla beans coming out of my ears…Duncan and I have already started referring to it as ‘the vanilla gulag’, trapped on the vanilla farm miles from anywhere (neither of us can drive)….vanilla vanilla vanilla, and the claustrophobic neurot in me worries that it might all be a bit much (also, I am not really the gardening type to be honest, more like someone who just wants to laze about in one; I would rather indolently watch others toil about the vanilla vines while sipping sweet drinks;  have the fruits of their labours extended to me for my perfumed inspection; but this time, rather than lounging it from some hammock, I will be there in those roiling temperatures, inspecting the roots,  sweating away and tilling the soil….

Still, I think it will be an absolutely fascinating experience, and I have to make sure that I don’t start blubbing upon seeing my first vanilla orchid in the flesh (not as improbable as it might seem….when we went on a tour of a Norfolk lavender farm once, I actually did shed tears as the distilled lavender vats produced their first drop of essential oil; all those years of using aromatherapy oils, it was my first time to actually see the flowers surrendering their souls, and there was something strangely emotive and beautiful about it……)

We are scheduling in a few nights of hedonism in Jakarta and Bandung first to get the dance and booze out of our systems (must play the part of English gentlemen once we get to the family); then once we leave the vanilla plantation, drenched in the smell of vanilla, which I am imagining will never leave my nostrils again, we are planning a long and languorous train journey across Java, to visit the temples at Borobodur, small towns on the way, and just read books, write diaries, and relax.

I am really hoping my adventure yields some revealing insights into vanilla, some new angles of appreciation, which I then want to share with you (as well as lots of prime Indonesian vanilla beans; did you know that the country produces twice as much as much vanilla as Madagascsar?) at my Vanilla Bonanza at Perfume Lovers London next year, where we can all luxuriate in vanilla pods and delicious, scented extravagance, together .

I am so excited!!





Filed under Flowers

37 responses to “D R O W N I N G I N V A N I L L A

  1. ninakane1

    Sounds utterly fascinating! Vanilla immersion. You’ll have a wonderful time I know. X

    • I hope so, though there is the thought that we are TRAPPED there! Family dinners? What will be the time schedule be like? I am an inveterate slob and I do worry…

      • I know what you mean – but like you say, you could have done the hotel n roaming tourist thing, but would you want that? This is different – a deeper, hence more emotionally challenging experience. It will be fine. You’ll learn so much – reckon you’ll be completely absorbed in it and will come back immersed and inspired.

      • and then move to Okinawa and try to start cultivating vanilla

      • Actually another possibility was Zanzibar, which sounded impossibly exotic to me (although D had already been there: as you know he lived in Tanzania before university), but apparently the spices were all kind of ‘laid out’ for the tourists, so you could ‘do’ your cinnamon, clove, and vanilla. As this is how the family actually makes a living, it should be a wholly different thing.
        I just worried that D might get bored.

      • Oh misread your earlier comment re: Okinawa! Do it! Give it a go. You have an affinity with vanilla and with plants in general. I don’t reckon D will be bored – it’ll be relaxing and fascinating for him! x

  2. I can see you wanting to actually Neil, once you’ve been there! You’ll certainly get a sense of what it’s like. And I think staying with a famlly who produce it is very integral / holistic actually. You’ll learn so much about vanilla and how it reaches the perfume bottles from the experience – also your nose will be in heaven – you will carry so much back with you.

  3. brie

    Can you smuggle my tiny body in your large suitcase and take me with you? I want to be drowning with you and Duncan!
    But seriously, I am happy that you have found a suitable alternative…this sounds as though it will be a fascinating and life altering trip for you…I am looking forward to hearing about your adventures upon your return! (and I am sure that D will NOT be bored…it will probably give him such pleasure seeing you in your glory!)

  4. Heavenly! Sounds like you have the trip of a lifetime planned there. Hope you and D have a wonderful time 🙂

    • I am envisaging food difficulties staying with the family but thankyou; it certainly won’t be boring, and even if it is I will love it ( there is something wonderful about being bored in foreign countries). Are you a cardamom man? Have you tried the essential oil in the bath? It is fantastically invigorating.

      • Yes I’m sure food anywhere outside your comfort zone is a tricky one. Yak butter tea and undercooked chicken in China to name a couple of my experiences! Yes I do indeed like cardamom, Jean Claude-Ellena uses it well in his creations. But I’ll consider now in the bath! Tried frankincense and grapefruit oil in the bath together? That’ll fix what ails ya 😉

      • I would, but the old pamplemousse always gives me a sensitizing reaction unfortunately. Frankincense though, yes.

  5. Tora

    I think you both are going to have a marvelous time!!! What a great trip you have planned. It sounds so very exotic. Vanilla heaven!

  6. Dearest Ginza
    The excitement is tangible.
    I’m sure I can feel the electric energy here on the other side of the world.
    To The Dandy this sounds like a damnably fine back up plan.
    Being a gentleman of learning myself, I find the lecture hall to be something akin to a second home… I am sure you will slide effortlessly back into being on the other side of the chalk face.
    And if not then you can merely inhale and float away on a vanilla scented cloud of reverie.
    Oh, and a long train journey to boot – you really have it all sewn up!
    Bravo and bon voyage… when exactly are you off again?
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • If only you were there to meet us for cocktails somewhere afterwards…..Raffles?


      • Oh Raffles.
        I once overheard a rather grand damme remark to a friend as they fell out of Clardige’s after what I can only assume was a rather too long champagne tea:
        “Didn’t you once get onto terrible trouble at a taxi rank in Singapore?”
        Without skipping a beat she responded “Yes, at Raffles in 1957. Terrible business. All part of life’s rich tapestry.”
        Ever since The Dandy has wanted to be that woman.
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

      • I did too. They also had to be seen to be believed.
        Hairstyles that would have withstood a hurricane untouched.
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

  7. Lilybelle

    Oh, that IS exciting! It sounds wonderful – except for the humidity (I am a bit of a lounge and read about it type myself), but what a fascinating time you will have! I love the idea of an organic plantation producing vanilla and all those other wonderful spices. I love cardamom, too. I completely understand why you would shed a few tears at seeing the “the flowers surrendering their souls”. How poetically you put it. I just started a book I found at the library, ‘Vanilla: the cutural history of the world’s most popular flavor and fragrance’ by Patricia Rain. Do you know that one? It made me think of you and your vanilla discovery adventure. I’m so glad it’s back on. 🙂

  8. What a lovely plan! Sounds like you have found the best possible way to go deeper into vanilla. Speaking of which, I am still determined to get you to try Tom Ford’s Noir de Noir because it has a nice vanillic drydown. Now that I know of your love for cardamom I also want you to try the I Profumi di Firenze Ambre de Nepal, which is a pretty concoction of amber, vanilla, and cardamom. And of course, I want everyone in the world to try the Mona di Orio Vanille. Let me know if you need samples. I acquired so many new scents when you did that great seven-part vanilla series that now I want you to do an eighth part.
    Have fun daydreaming about your trip

    • I am desperate to try the Mona, and the vanilla/cardamom sounds like my idea of heaven. I love that company; their scents are so RICH and Italian.

      As for the Noir, on your behalf I did try it recently at Hankyu Men’s in Ginza, and thought it was a very fine rose/oudh and understood perfectly why you love it. I am not quite in that kind of mood at the mo’, but it is definitely a proper scent.

      • Thanks for trying it. I can quit nagging now. If you want samples of the other two, send my your address at wooddogs3 awt gmail dawtcawm and I will get with my unfriendly postmistress and see how to get them to you.

      • That would be great.

        (You just have to lie, and say they are sweets….!)

      • I will try that if you send me your address. I am going to go to a different post office, because the clerk at my local one grabs any package I bring in and says “perfume, right?” I made the error the first time of asking her if it was okay to mail perfume, and now she has my number.

      • That is the way it goes these days. Deceit only, I’m afraid.

  9. k d jackson

    Sounds like a cool trip.

  10. Debbie Lauri

    I Love, Love, LOVE all things vanilla! I just know this trip will touch you both deeply & you will maybe be a bit sad to leave. BUT…ah, the experience Neil! From as long as I can remember, I’ve Loved the heady aroma of vanilla-not the cheap vanilla scents you get in so many places…but rather in the more expensive stores. Ann Klein II was an absolute necessity to me-but they discontinued it & broke my heart.
    Instead, the kept Ann Klein I-which smelled to me like whale vomit.
    Get some nice pics with both of you together in them, will you please???? Maybe rolling in vanilla beans…

  11. tonkabeany

    I can’t see this trip being anything other than enthralling, enchanting and possibly hilariously awkward every now and then! Will duncan not find the plant cultivating side of things very enjoyable, besides the whole scent experience? I don’t see you getting bored and, as you say, depending on the context, boredom has its own pleasures… I’m thinking Noh performances that go on for hours or or Greek wedding ceremonies… when the setting is beautiful and ‘other’ it’s surprising how little additional stimulation is needed.
    It is altogether a fabulous idea, very, very excited for you.

    • Arigato H

      Actually you are right, Duncan is far more the gardener than I am so I reckon he will really enjoy it actually (if only it were TWO or three days rather than the length it is….) But then again these intense experiences can create amazingly deep and resonant and hilarious memories that stay with you. After all, that Noh performance was five hours long..xx

  12. It’s an ill wind that blows no good…sounds like the locusts have driven you to somewhere better. So excited for you both (and rather jealous too!) Love vanilla and adore cardamom as well. I hope you are going to do The Daily Vanilla Report when you go. Very much looking forward to your visit and vanilla evening with Perfume Lovers London – mid March looking good!

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