Issue 20.1: February/March 2017
Native Intelligence: French Polynesia

Vanilla Nonpareil

Story by Cain Nunns. Photos by Tim McKenna.

Alain Abel is the best at what he does. There aren’t many people who can say that—and he wouldn’t himself. Instead, Abel leaves the praise up to the cadre of international master chefs who testify to the superior quality of his vanilla: He supplies more Michelin-starred cooks with the world’s second most expensive spice (after saffron) than any other vanilla producer in French Polynesia.

The Tahitian vanilla orchid is the only one in the world allowed to reach full maturity on the stem, giving it time for its natural fats to develop in the bean, locking in flavor and fragrance. So improving on French Polynesian vanilla—which is already regarded as the world’s best—was no easy proposition for a Frenchman and former nurse who moved to Tahiti because he loved island life. “I thought I knew what I wanted,” says Abel sitting in his “office”—the verdant Opoa Valley on Raiatea. “Then I smelled vanilla. I was hooked. That was twenty-five years ago.”

Abel says what distinguishes his vanilla is the way he grows, harvests and cures it, all of which must be done by hand. “The flower opens one morning a year,” he says. “If it’s not pollinated by hand within a few hours, the bean dies and falls off the vine.” And that’s the easy part. Once the bean has been harvested, it needs to be cured. That’s a daily slog of slowly drying, or “sweating,” the pungent pods in the sun for a few hours a day for up to two months.

Like the great monastic vintners of Burgundy, what Abel does is more art than trade. It’s a thin line between a perfectly cured, oil-fat, flavorful vanilla bean and an under-cured one that’s laden with mold-encouraging moisture. Today, Abel works with eight hundred small farmers to export about 45 percent of the vanilla produced in French Polynesia, a tiny fraction of the world market compared with other tropical producers like Madagascar, where labor is cheap and quality is low.

But for Abel it’s never been about becoming the biggest dog—just the best. And he’s one of the lucky few who stumbled across both a passion and a profession. “I will never go home,” he says. “This is all I will ever do. I am completely in love with this spice.”