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…..
OK WHERE NEXT….
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!!