It is unfortunate that vanilla is synonymous with the plain, ordinary and unimpressive, when a quality vanilla bean has one of the most alluring and complex flavor profiles on the planet. Vanilla is also one of the most popular and recognizable flavors worldwide. Ice cream, soda pop, cookies, cakes, chocolate, and even high-end cosmetics depend on this spice to elevate their flavor and aroma. The island of Madagascar is the heart of the vanilla bean industry—producing roughly 80% of the world’s vanilla and some of the finest quality beans available.
What are Madagascar Vanilla Beans?
Madagascar vanilla beans are not really beans, but the fruit or seed pod of the orchid species, vanilla planifolia. The vanilla orchid is native to Mexico and the vanilla genus is home to more than 100 species of vanilla plants, but only a handful are cultivated commercially. The vanilla planifolia species is the most common type and it is the variety grown in Madagascar and Mexico. Another popular variety is vanilla tahitensis, a unique hybrid vanilla bean variety from Tahiti.
What Do Madagascar Vanilla Beans Taste Like?
Describing Madagascar vanilla’s bouquet is challenging, even though it is a familiar flavor to so many. Spice House Sourcing Expert Alex Wilkens explains, “It's far and away the most complex spice flavor on earth, which makes it almost impossible to describe. This is also exactly what makes a high-quality vanilla bean so special. Floral, sweet, earthy, undertones of dried dark fruits, oak and leather all at the same time!”
Vanilla’s leading flavor is due to the presence of vanillin, an organic compound that delivers those signature sweet, warm, and creamy flavors. Madagascar vanilla has higher concentrations of vanillin than beans from other countries, another reason why Madagascar vanilla beans are so richly flavored. While vanillin is the dominant flavor compound, there are more than 250 other compounds found in real vanilla beans, often conveying nuanced spicy, floral, and fruity flavors.
Artificial vanilla flavoring is made from synthesized vanillin and frequently extracted from wood pulp! Since artificial vanilla excludes the other organic compounds, its flavor falls flat in comparison to the mysterious bouquet of pure vanilla extract. We exclusively carry vanilla extracts made from real, high-quality vanilla beans. Even though pure vanilla extract captures the rich flavors of vanilla, there is something more intense and intriguing about the flavor of a whole vanilla bean.
What Makes Madagascar Vanilla Beans Special?
Madagascar vanilla beans are considered to be the gold standard for quality vanilla beans in the spice world. The humid, northeast corner of Madagascar, known as the Sava region, produces the majority of the world’s finest vanilla beans. The plentiful rainfall and fertile, loamy soil create optimal conditions for these delicate plants. While vanilla growing conditions in Sava, Madagascar are nearly perfect, it is the people of Madagascar that make this regional spice so special.
The art of growing and curing quality vanilla beans is completely done by hand. Vanilla grown outside of its native country, Mexico, has no natural pollinators. Each vanilla orchid flower must be delicately pollinated by hand.
The pollination technique used in Madagascar was discovered in 1841 on the nearby island of Reunion. A 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius figured out how to carefully join the male and female parts of the flower together using a whittled stick, thus allowing the prized vanilla bean to grow. The method is still referred to today as “le geste d’Edmond,” or “Edmond’s gesture.”
It takes almost three years for a new vanilla orchid vine to begin producing flowers. When vanilla orchids finally form, they are in bloom for less than 24 hours. Farmers must observe their vines closely during the blooming period and work quickly and carefully when a flower bud opens, often in the late morning. From there, a single pollinated flower will produce just one vanilla bean. The beans grow green on the vine for roughly six months before they are ready for harvest.
Growing vanilla vines is one thing, but curing the beans is the most important and challenging part of the process. The expert vanilla bean curing skills of Madagascan farmers might explain why their vanilla has the highest vanillin content in the world.
“The real knowhow comes from knowing when to take them off the vine and how to cure them,” says Meg Merrifield of MUST Vanilla. MUST vanilla is a family-run vanilla exporting business, located in Madagascar. They are The Spice House’s direct source for Madagascar vanilla beans.
Green vanilla beans have no flavor or aroma when they are harvested. It is the enzymatic reaction caused by the curing process that allows flavors to develop. For roughly 30 days, beans enjoy sunbathing in the day before they are wrapped in blankets to sweat in the tropical night air. Beans are even massaged carefully during the day to ensure even curing throughout.
“It’s an everyday thing. You have to massage the beans. You have to smell the beans. You have to know how long they need to be out in the sun,” says Merrifield. “It is one of the most unique products in the world. It is a very involved process and very few people know how to do it. It is such a local thing to Madagascar.”
For close to 20 years, Merrifield and her husband have been working directly with vanilla farmers in Madagascar to export their high-quality vanilla beans. Merrifiled explains that Madagascar vanilla is special because of the generational knowledge and culture of growing vanilla in the Sava region. No shortcuts are taken at any point in the process, further upholding the high reputation of Madagascar vanilla.
Since MUST Vanilla works directly with these farmers, Spice House customers are able to enjoy some of the freshest Madagascar beans available. These beans are long, beautiful seed pods that are bendable and full of aromatic oils. Not only is this direct relationship good for Spice House customers, but it’s important for the people of Madagascar, as they receive fair compensation for their hard work. This is important because there are few economic opportunities as profitable as vanilla in Madagascar.
MUST Vanilla has been able to help support the local Malagasy people with the revenue from vanilla. They have built schools in the area and funded new hospital wings throughout the Sava region. By purchasing Madagascar vanilla beans from The Spice House, you help foster economic development for the people of northeastern Madagascar.
“It’s nice that [The Spice House] buys directly from us, and we’re a Madagascar-based family business,” says Merrifield. “When you buy from The Spice House, you’re buying from local Malagasy farmers.”
How to Use Madagascar Vanilla Beans
To use Madagascar vanilla beans, slice the bean open lengthwise with a paring knife. Use the spine of the knife to scrape out the black inner seeds; this is what is known as vanilla caviar. You can then add the vanilla caviar to cake batter, cookie dough, frosting, sauces, syrups, and more.
The scraped-out pod has lots of flavor and can be used to infuse a bottle of spirits or be placed into a jar of cane sugar for a week or so to turn it into vanilla sugar.
If you have any questions about vanilla or have a recipe to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Article by Geoff Marshall, Staff Writer