Gaëlle Bélem goes back to the origins of the bittersweet scent of vanilla

Gaëlle Bélem goes back to the origins of the bittersweet scent of vanilla

How many people know his name? Four or five, maybe six, hardly more… Yet his discovery allowed his native island to impose itself on the world map, on tables and menus around the world. Without this young boy born on the island of Reunion, from the love of two slaves who died too soon, the taste revolution started several centuries earlier by the Aztecs could not have continued. To the great dismay of the millions of gourmets who savor it every day…

By looking at the life of Edmond Albius – of whom a few rare colonial archives have kept track – Gaëlle Belem seriously thumbs her nose at several generations of successful planters and traders who all owe their fortune to the discovery of this young illiterate boy who knew the botany and orchids of his island like no one else…

The history of humanity is teeming with these modest discoverers forgotten, or even knowingly buried under administrative archives. Discreet men and women whom landowners or big bosses were quick to strip of their ephemeral title to glory to attach it permanently to their own name.

Ingratitude or venality, sometimes the combination of the two factors, led to their downfall those who believed themselves lucky or blessed by the gods, after an unexpected discovery.

It is this injustice that Gaëlle Bélem, French author and professor, tackles with her second novel anchored in an island that she knows well. Its scene is set in a few words in a rich and often shimmering language. We follow Edmond, a young gardener prodigy, who very early on followed the example of his your Father always walking around with pollen at his fingertips, carving out a future as a botanist-cultivator from the age of three.

The novel begins with a stroll full of beauties and discoveries on an island that has no shortage of them. The astonished and curious mind wanders through this extraordinary garden and through descriptions of elegant flowers and heady perfumes, one would swear that its story is delivered in odorama…

A life between nightmare and fairy tale

Between novel, essay and collection of anecdotes, Gaëlle Bélem retraces – through rich and rare archives from Reunion – the thread of the discovery of one of the rarest and most prized spices in the history of humanity, vanilla, which established itself in the mid-19th century on all the great tables of Europe and the world.

With his sense of metaphor, striking formula and biting irony, his story expands on the scant archives that have kept track of it. And do not avoid the darkest passages in the life of Edmond Albius which almost transformed the fairy tale of the beginning into a nightmare in perpetuity. Thus she gives thanks to this anonymous destiny who knew how to take advantage of her sense of observation and the generosity of nature to reveal a unique taste.

Similar to vanilla, cocoa or coffee, its existence would have retained a decidedly bitter taste without its dexterity and the intervention of the genius craftsmen who imagined their transformation for the greatest pleasure of our palates.

Karin Tshidimba

★ ★ ★ The rarest fruit or the life of Edmond Albius | Novel | Gaëlle Bélem | Gallimard, Black Continents Collection, 256 pp. €20, digital €14