Vanilla in Madagascar : Madagascar bourbon vanilla is reputed to be one of the best vanillas in the world. With its beautiful pods and intense black color, the black gourmet vanilla of Madagascar is the best quality vanilla on the market. But despite the hype around Madagascar bourbon vanilla, you should know that the country of origin of vanilla is not Madagascar, but Mexico! Bourbon vanilla is a real invitation to travel, a gustatory journey to the heart of the Indian Ocean. Passing from one ocean to another, discover its introduction in Madagascar!
The origin of vanilla: The Aztecs and the Totonacs
Vanilla is part of the family of tropical liana orchids. Vanilla is native to South and Central America as well as the Caribbean; and the first people to have cultivated it seem to have been the Totonacs of the East Coast of Mexico. The Aztecs may have had vanilla when they conquered the Totonaques in the 15th century; the Spanish, in turn, got it when they conquered the Aztecs. One source claims it was introduced to Western Europe by Hernán Cortés – though at the time it was overshadowed by his other American imports, which included jaguars, possums, an armadillo and a whole team of ballplayers equipped with rubber balls.
Vanilla-Chocolate: an old blend still enjoyed
The Aztecs drank their chocolate with a hint of vanilla, and Europeans, once they became accustomed to the substance (one appalled Spaniard described chocolate as « a drink for pigs »), followed suit. Vanilla was considered nothing more than an additive for chocolate until the early 17th century, when Hugh Morgan, a creative apothecary in the employ of Queen Elizabeth I, invented chocolate-free, vanilla-flavored sweets. The Queen loved them. She was immediately smitten. In the next century, the French used vanilla to flavor ice cream – a treat discovered by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, while living in Paris as the American minister to France. He was so delighted with it that he copied a recipe, now housed in the Library of Congress.
Vanilla recipes, a long journey
Vanilla came late to the recipe books. According to food historian Waverley Root, the first known vanilla recipe appears in the 1805 edition of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, which suggests adding « vanelas » to chocolate.
The first American recipe – for vanilla ice cream – is found in The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph. In the second half of the century, the demand for vanilla soared. Not only was it the established flavor of choice for ice cream, but it was an essential ingredient in soft drinks – including Atlanta chemist John S. Pemberton’s Coca-Cola, released in 1886, impressively advertised as an « esteemed brain tonic and intellectual drink. »
Vanilla cultivation in Madagascar: A meticulous and long production
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) because its production is so labor intensive. Vanilla grows like a clinging vine, from which pale greenish-yellow flowers called vanilla flowers grow.
These – in Mexico, vanilla’s natural habitat – are pollinated by melipone bees. Each flower remains open for only 24 hours, after which, if not pollinated, it wilts, dies and falls to the ground.
Vanilla flowers produce beautiful green vanilla pods (also called « capsules » in botany).
The production of vanilla requires a lot of time, patience and precision. Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar respects all this process in order to have a final product of quality while offering a good quality/price ratio to the customers.
The manual pollination of vanilla: The beginning of vanilla
In the 1860’s, Louis XIV ordered the importation of vanilla to Bourbon Island, thinking that in this tropical and humid climate, the vanilla tree would produce the beautiful pods so beloved. But if in Mexico, it worked, on Bourbon Island, there were no pods… The Melipone bee, the only insect capable of fertilizing vanilla, was missing!
A second attempt to cultivate vanilla took place on Bourbon Island under the command of Commander Pierre-Henri Philibert Marchand. But, still in the absence of the Melipone bee, the results were obviously unsuccessful.
If pollination is successful, a fruit develops in the form of a pod 16 to 26 cm long (on average 20cm), filled with thousands of tiny black seeds (the attractive spots in a good quality vanilla ice cream). The introduction of vanilla into tropical and presumably vanilla-friendly regions around the world, but without the proper bees, remained resolutely podless until 1841, when Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave boy on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, figured out how to hand-pollinate vanilla flowers with a stick and a nudge. The simple technique had profound implications. Vanilla plantations sprang up around the world, from Madagascar to India, Tahiti and Indonesia.
Vanilla is an incredibly complex and subtle spice, containing between 250 and 500 different flavors and fragrances. The most important of these is vanillin, which, despite its unattractive chemical moniker, is relatively simple to synthesize. Vanillin can be made from petrochemicals; lignin, a byproduct of the wood pulp and paper industry; and eugenol, a component of clove oil. It can even be produced from castoreum, a molasses-like secretion from the anal glands of beavers, although this is admittedly a minor source.
Madagascar, the world’s largest vanilla producer
Although Madagascar provides 80% of the world’s vanilla, the delicate beans that flavour all desserts do not originate from this island. Mexico is the only place in the world where vanilla has been grown naturally, that is, by an endemic insect. The vanilla pods are one of the best in the world, of an incredible quality reaching 20 cm. Initially, vanilla planifia was introduced in the Mascarene areas and then imported to Madagascar around the beginning of the 19th century. The vanilla comes from the SAVA region (Sambava, Antalaha, Vohemar, Andapa).
Very appreciated in desserts, bourbon vanilla is also a pure delight for the elaboration of arranged rums.
Bourbon vanilla beans from Madagascar: A very nice quality of vanilla
Madagascar vanilla beans are consistently ranked as the best vanilla beans because of the overall consistency of the vanilla beans produced.
Although the history of Bourbon vanilla did not actually begin in Madagascar (the term Bourbon vanilla actually comes from an island next to Madagascar), the term is now primarily associated with the vanilla species Vanilla Planifolia that grows in the Comoros, Madagascar, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, Uganda and more to name a few.
Madagascar produces over 80% of the world’s supply of vanilla beans.
This monopoly on vanilla is justified by the fact that in Madagascar there are many large vanilla houses, shareholders of small farms as well as individual processors and entire families. The processors are highly skilled and competitive in the vanilla economy.
Where does the name Bourbon vanilla come from?
The Bourbons, a French royal family, used the island of Reunion, formerly the island of Mascareignes, as a stopover on the road to India. The Bourbons therefore decided to give their name to the island, thus becoming Bourbon Island.
The different forms of vanilla
The vanilla beans of Madagascar are excellent whatever its form. Indeed, the bourbon vanilla is excellent to produce a vanilla extract,
It is also very nice and pure in vanilla powder. But the preferred form is undeniably the vanilla bean which remains the purest, the most raw and the most natural form. A whole market exists around vanilla which can be declined in various versions.
With a powerful fragrant aroma and a very intense odor, the black gourmet vanilla from Madagascar is very popular with the great designers who include a touch of vanilla in their culinary preparations.
A support to the Malagasy planters
Buying vanilla from Madagascar means supporting small producers, families and stakeholders.