Vanilla was first discovered in Mexico during the Aztec period, French colonists brought vanilla to Reunion Island and nearby Mauritius in the 1820’s with the aim to start production, however, the vines were sterile.
In 1841, Edmond Albius, a slave on Reunion Island who became an important figure in the cultivation of vanilla accidentally discovered manual pollination at the age of 12, a method still used to this day, as nearly all vanilla is pollinated by hand.
We sat down with Naima, Managing Director of Ngaya (which means flower in Comorian) over iced green tea and some patisseries to discover more about the fascinating world of vanilla.
Naima, can you tell us how your family got into the vanilla trade?
We have been producing vanilla in our family for four generations now, my family migrated to the Comoros Islands in the 19th century. My great-grandfather, Goulamoussen Kalfane was a vanilla producer, selling his vanilla to French colonists.
Today, we supply vanilla to select gourmet restaurants and we also provide essential oils and vanilla for the Haute Perfumery industry. With over 120 years’ experience in the vanilla world, our passion for this precious ingredient is passed on from father to son, or in my case, from father to daughter (it’s actually the first time that this knowledge and responsibility has been passed on to girls).
We even have a family tradition, when a baby is born, before even taking him/her home, we take him to the vanilla warehouse and we put him in a carton filled with vanilla.
Since 2013, due to high demand, my father decided to expand production to Madagascar. Although we produce vanilla in Madagascar, we stick to our own tradition using the Comorian method to ensure consistency and our signature quality of our product.
In this industry, those with expertise in vanilla, really appreciate my father’s proficiency. One of our clients, l’Atelier Français des Matière even made a tribute to him. Renowned perfumer Nathalie Festhaueir (known for Eau des Merveilles de Hermès) created a fragrance named after him, La Vanille D’Amine.
From the Comoros islands to Dubai, how did that happen?
The quality of our production and preparation speaks for itself, which is why I wanted to bring our vanilla to the best (and some of my favourite) restaurants in Dubai. I wanted to focus on the French restaurants, so I decided to leave some vanilla pods for the chefs to sample. Initially, I was really discouraged because the chefs where looking at it, saying it was a wonderful product but nobody wanted to buy it for two reasons. Firstly, vanilla wasn’t a key ingredient, which really surprised me, or it was too expensive. Our vanilla is one of the best in the world, we employ passionate people who are experts are what they do. Such care, passion, time and energy is what creates a superior quality product. Although it was disheartening for me, I found that education is key when it comes to explaining our product, the heritage, the knowledge, the environment, all of these factors are what differentiate our family business from many others.
What made you pass by La Serre?
After a long hard day of sampling, I came to La Serre for a coffee and to see what was behind the Boulangerie door and I ended up standing in front of the most spectacular display of pastries with ALL THIS VANILLA on it!!!! I WAS SO HAPPY and SO EXCITED! I tried the Mille Feuille with the vanilla pods and I have to say, it was delicious. The Mille Feuille is my favourite dessert in Paris, so I try it everywhere, whenever possible and the one from La Serre is in my top 3!
I just knew my vanilla was destined to be at La Serre and fortunately, I had 3 pods left after my day of sampling, I left these last 3 pods with one of the waiters who passed them onto Kivanc, the Procurement Manager who called me immediately after receiving them, he was so excited. It felt so good speaking to someone who understands the quality and the effort that goes into a product. Especially when it comes to something close to my heart. I didn’t think it was possible to meet someone else with such passion for good quality ingredients. I’ll never forget that day, I walked into La Serre after a tiring day, without any hope as per the previous restaurants but I walked out of that door with restored optimism.
What is involved in the vanilla preparation process?
“Vanilla comes from a tropical orchid liana. It blossoms when the flower is fertilized by hand.”
The vanilla harvests are seasonal, and depending on the country, the harvest will differ throughout the year but most tend to start in June. The process before being able to export takes several months and vanilla is very sensitive, as my father likes to say; “vanilla can be like a woman, she needs a lot of attention and care to be able to give its best qualities and scent.”
The first step is the pollination of the flower that will give birth to the green vanilla, then the green vanilla is picked by hand when it becomes mature. Moving onto the process involved in vanilla preparation, we begin with boiling the vanilla in hot water, and then it needs to sweat, followed by drying out under the sun and then keeping it on a grid for 5 to 6 months with special care, according to the size and quality.
Although vanilla originates from Mexico, where else can it be found?
Vanilla comes from Madagascar, Comoros, La Réunion, Tahiti, Uganda, India, Congo and Indonesia.
However, Madagascar is the king country of vanilla, primarily for the quantity produced. The size of the crop in Madagascar determines the price of vanilla every year. This is a very big issue because there are a lot of quality issues in Madagascar. Prices per kg are very high and people are afraid their crops will be stolen so they pick the vanilla too early and it is not mature yet. Or they sell vanilla with a lot of water inside or they vacuum it to have a heavier vanilla to earn more money.
Are there many different varieties of vanilla?
Yes, there are many;
Black Vanilla which is more gourmet, used for fine fragrances and Haute Gastronomie. We call it “Vanille 3ème”. The Vanilla is “oily”, “sticky” and black, with more moisture.
Brown Vanilla (can be very dark), it can be reddish also, it is like black vanilla but the sticks are dryer and the moisture lower. We call it “Vanille 4ème”.
The Fendu and the Non Fendu vanilla (open/closed). The more mature vanilla is when it’s picked up from the liana, the higher the chance it will be split into 2. Usually the smell of the opened vanilla is better.
My favourite Vanilla is another type called the “Vanille Mauvais” (it means bad vanilla). It’s vanilla from Comoros. Not one of the better looking vanillas but the high content in vanilline gives the most amazing scent.
“During the vanilla harvest, peasants would leave some vanilla on trees so that their children can pick it starting the school year and then sell it to the colonists in exchange for candy or to buy school books and pencils. They paid very little money to the children, fooling them by saying the vanilla was ugly and bad vanilla, whereas the smell was amazing.”
Where can you find the best vanilla in the world?
As far as I am concerned, the best vanilla comes from Comoros and La Réunion (they are like twin sisters). The volcanic fields have an impact on the quality of the vanilla. It is always about the “terroirs”. Tahitian Vanilla is also excellent. Actually it’s like wine, for example, according to the region and the field, the wine is different.
Are there any other uses for vanilla?
There are many ways and methods to use vanilla but of course, the most famous is in the kitchen with pastries and desserts. However, you can also find it in salty recipes as well, although much less common.
There are many other properties of vanilla and the women of our islands are using it for its antiaging and cell regeneration properties by soaking vanilla pods in oil for 1 to 2 months, leaving it to infuse the oil and then apply to the face.
Vanilla is commonly used as an appetite suppressant, the smell of the vanilla can help balance hormones linked to cravings.
In North America, vanilla is commonly used for helping babies to develop their respiratory system (for premature babies), you can put one bunch of vanilla under their bed.
Can you share the secret to keeping vanilla as a family business for four generations?
Seeing the sparkle in my father’s eyes every year during the vanilla harvest and all the stories he shares with us of the time he would spend with his father in the vanilla fields makes me feel very proud to be a part of something which touches so many people all over the world.
Through the deep love we have for vanilla, our passion for knowledge and the relationship we have with our vanilla, our noses have developed like perfumers since childhood. It helps us follow the vanilla during the preparation process and to ensure it is healthy.
Every summer during the vanilla harvest, the entire family work together, we do everything with passion and love, the atmosphere radiates such a positive energy.
Also, the most important aspect is to be able to respect the vanilla and take care of it throughout every stage. Being close to all the producers and collectors of vanilla. To feel the harvest period with joy and cherish the vanilla.
Apart from the F&B industry, do you supply your vanilla to anyone else?
In Dubai, we are only working with restaurants. But on an international level, we supply the biggest perfume manufacturers.
You can find our vanilla in many famous perfumes. In fact, the perfume you are wearing right now probably contains our vanilla.
Are there any unusual ways in which your vanilla has been used?
Yes, maybe the vanilla salt. The Langoustes à la Vanille (lobsters with vanilla)are also famous on our islands.
My father uses vanilla in the most unique way. When he buys Egoiste de Chanel perfume, he opens the bottle and he puts some vanilla pods inside! It gives a different smell to the perfume, his bespoke version!
What’s next for Ngaya?
I am in the process of developing my Coffret de Vanille – like a vanilla cellar. It will come in a precious wooden box (limited edition each year) which contains a variety of vanillas from my both countries, Madagascar and Comoros.
There will also be a book inside to explain the different scents and the different uses.
Finally, which is your favourite dish at La Serre?
Such a hard question, ask me anything about vanilla and its climate but my favourite dish at La Serre? Everything is so yummy, but I do love the quinoa salad with the peach vinaigrette and the passion fruit cheesecake (which contains our vanilla of course).
You can follow Ngaya on Instagram here.