Meet the maker: the vanilla producers of São Tomé and Príncipe

Producing vanilla is a real labour of love, but in São Tomé and Príncipe, the team at Vanilha are getting the most out of this precious crop.

Freshly picked green vanilla pods.

Photograph by Rachel Laidler
By Jez Fredenburgh & Rachel Laidler
Published 24 Mar 2022, 15:00 GMT

Originating from Mexico’s rainforests and once picked by the Aztecs to flavour their cocoa, vanilla is today the most used flavouring in the world and second most expensive spice after saffron. It’s also an exceptionally labour-intensive crop, and highly liable to fail. 

On São Tomé and Príncipe, a tiny island nation off the coast of Gabon, this challenge has brought together two Europeans and a group of local farmers, who are determined to make vanilla growing less risky and bring much-needed income to the islands. 

Located on the Equator — where vanilla likes it best — São Tomé’s rich volcanic soils produce pods with a distinctly nutty, caramel aroma, which are subtler and more floral than Madagascan vanilla pods and lend themselves to both sweet and savoury dishes. 

Vanilha, a company set up by Italian businessman Francesco Mai and French development student Juliette Dohar, is working with 30 local farmers to utilise their generational knowledge of growing vanilla, while using high-tech monitoring equipment to hone techniques and improve the chances of crop success. Since it launched in 2019, the business has grown steadily, and the company now produces and exports vanilla pods, vanilla essence and vanilla rum. 

“Vanilla isn’t about mass production, it’s about quality and patience,” explains Francesco. “One flower equals just one bean, and it must be pollinated by hand, which is an expert skill. If you miss the two-hour window to do this, when the flower opens, the bean will be wasted.”

Part of the orchid family, vanilla is uniquely difficult to grow because of its reliance on a tiny bee, native to Mexico, for its pollination. Since the crop is largely grown outside the bee’s territory these days, in countries such as Madagascar and Tahiti, farmers have to pollinate its flowers, painstakingly, by hand. Which means Francesco and Juliette must dash up and down the island for three months of the year, helping farmers to pollinate during this small window. 

Once pollinated, bean pods take six months to grow, and are then harvested while still green. “We then ‘kill’ the beans to stop them developing further by plunging them into hot water,” says Juliette. “After this, they’re drained, wrapped in cotton canvas and put into wooden boxes to ferment at 50C for 48 hours. This is when the flavours and aromas start to develop.”

Next, the fermented beans are dried in the sun — a challenge on São Tomé since this usually coincides with the rainy season — before going back into boxes to ‘sweat’ at a temperature of 40C. Lastly, they’re dried in a dark room and then stored for six to 10 months to further develop flavours. 

“After all this, one day you open the box and hope to get an explosion of vanilla aromas,” says Juliette. “Only then do you know it is ready.” 

Three vanilla cocktails to try

1. Juliette’s Vanilha daiquiri
If you want a taste of São Tomé, try this concoction from Vanilha’s Juliette Dohar. It’s as tropical as they come, because all the ingredients are grown or made on the island. Blend a frozen banana with one and a half shots of Vanilha rum, and pour into a margarita glass, before adding a splash of fresh orange juice. 

2. Vanilla sky
For a refreshing and deliciously tart drink, try vanilla sky, which combines citrus and tropical flavours. The cocktail is a blend of vanilla-flavoured vodka, orange curaçao (a liqueur made with dried orange peel), almond syrup (or amaretto for an extra kick), lemon and pineapple juice. 

3. Vanilla vodka creamtini
Creamy and velvety, the creamtini is a gloriously induldent cocktail. Begin by rubbing the rim of a martini glass with a wedge of orange and coating it with vanilla sugar. Then add a shaken blend of ice cubes, vanilla vodka, Irish cream liqueur and Cointreau.

Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)

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