Before we sail to Bora Bora, we have to make one more stop on Tahaa’a. Tahaa’a (pronounced Ta-ha-ah) is known for its Tahitian vanilla crops. Chefs all over the world clamor to get some of the goods. I told my Mom we are going to Tahaa, and in response she exclaimed “Oh! Obama vanilla!” Apparently, the White House chefs like to use Tahaa’a vanilla. So, yes. We are on our way to pick up some “Obama vanilla.”
Tahaa shares a lagoon with Raiatea; it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump over to a deep mouth bay. We motor out of our spot in the blue reef of Raiatea and arrive about an hour later at our destination. Crystal and I relax in Sonrisa’s cockpit until sunset, polishing and making necklaces out of the shells we collected.
The next morning, we zipped to shore and secured a ride over to a vanilla plantation. The plantation is beautiful. Nestled in the valley of jungle-covered hillsides, rows of organically grown vanilla warm in the sunshine. As soon as I step out of the truck and onto the property, the scent of vanilla hit my nose. Our friendly host takes us on a tour and explains the technique used to harvest the most flavorful vanilla in the world.
Vanilla is an orchid, so it needs a very specific light balance to produce flowers. First, you must plant a tree and let it grow just large enough that it will provide the right amount of shade for the vanilla vine. The vanilla can be produced using a non-organic process, under shade screens built like an open air greenhouse. Either way, too much sun, and it will not flower. To little sun, and it will not flower. This also means that the vanilla is very sensitive to changes in weather.
Once the flower blooms, the grower must go through his crop and hand fertilize the plant using his “magic stick” made from the center of the palm frond. He takes the male part of the flower and bends it toward the female part of the flower to create the pod. There are no insects or birds who can do this job here. Soon, the bean grows on the vine. When they are ready, the grower picks all the beans and lays them out on a table in the shade until they turn brown.
Once they are brown, they are placed in the sun for three hours per day to dry - no more, no less. Each day, they are sorted to remove the beans that have dried enough. The hostess of the plantation shows us one that is dry versus one that still needs more time in the sun. The difference is subtle, but the dry one is slightly less supple, and slightly more wrinkly. Once they have sunned themselves for three hours, they go back in the shade until the next day.
After this round, they are placed in little wooden boxes with screens over the top. This reduces the amount of sunlight they get during their three hours sun sessions. Now, the vanilla beans must be “massaged” each day. The plantation workers take each bean during the sunning session and run their fingers from top to bottom. Thousands of vanilla beans get transferred from shade-sun-shade-sun-shade-sun, watched and prodded until they are just perfect. These well attended little beans produce the strongest flavored vanilla in the world.
These beans can be used in many ways. Place one bean in a sealed container with your coffee beans, and it will add a vanilla flavor and smell to your coffee beans for years to come if you keep the container sealed and in the dark when you are not scooping coffee beans out. When the container gets low on coffee beans, just refill.
You can make vanilla extract. Take one liter of rum (crappy rum is just fine) and place 20 vanilla beans in the bottle. Wait two weeks, now you have vanilla extract instead of rum. Whenever your bottle of vanilla extract loses a quarter of the rum, top it off and give it a little shake. These little vanilla beans can keep you in vanilla extract for four to five years or even longer using this method. Once they stop flavoring the rum quite so, then, you can remove the soggy vanilla bean and mash it up into a paste to make cakes, sauces, ice cream, etc.
Add one bean to a small bottle of honey, and you have vanilla honey.
Or, as Andrew enjoys, use a vanilla bean to stir your coffee or Coca Cola, and you will have vanilla coke.
After the tour, we are shuffled into a little open air shop where we could buy raw vanilla beans, powders, pastes, honeys, oils, etc. etc. etc. We are offered papaya juice and coconut to snack on. Soon, we meet more vanilla plantation friends: Nicola and Maeva.
Someday very soon, Nicola will be a full sized pig. But right now, she is a little baby pig who loves peanut butter and jam sandwiches, to drink from cups, sit upon command, eat coconut from your hand and snuggle with her favorite pal, Maeva. Maeva is a little puppy who will also grow a little bit, but not nearly as much as Nicola. When full grown, Nicola will be 600 lbs! I suspect Nicola and Maeva have very specific jobs on the plantation: they are the cheer-squad.
Crystal and I quickly fill up our camera disks taking pictures of these two cuties. I pet Nicola’s head with its warm skin and wire-like hair. She smiles slyly for the camera. Maeva nuzzles his nose up to Nicola, and at the end of the afternoon can be found resting his head against the pig’s paw. How can you resist these guys?
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Tahaa’a. Tahaa’a is lush and quiet. Unlike the other society islands we have visited, the people cultivate vegetables, fruit, flowers or vanilla in their yards. Every house has a little garden or things growing in pots. People sit in their yards; kids play in the road. “Ia orana!” (Pronounced Yah-oRANah) they call out to us and wave as we go by. We have to pay attention because they will greet us from inside their houses as we walk by on the street. Sometimes, we hear a cheerful greeting, but can’t locate the source. They always stop what they are doing to say hello. People sit on their porches and play a game that looks like bacchi ball in the streets.
We come upon a family drinking beer and collecting little fish in a bowl on a walkway toward town. I ask them what they are making, and they show us how they catch and clean the fish. They explain they will batter and fry the fish for a big party later that evening. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
We hitchhike (a first for me!) and a friendly man with a truck filled with coconuts picks us up. He drives us out of his way to our anchorage. We enjoy some drinks and internet at the Hibiscus.
We would love to stay longer in beautiful, peaceful Tahaa, but we keep on movin' on.