Suitcase and World: The Essence of Madagascar. Vanilla.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Essence of Madagascar. Vanilla.

Vanilla Beans (Photo by hcabral)

Vanilla is one of the most common food flavors many of us foodies enjoy.  As a baker, I don't know of any recipes that don't call for vanilla regardless of the main flavor in the baked good.  I can't imagine a great chocolate cake without the subtle undertone of vanilla.  I also can't fathom a world without vanilla in ice cream, yogurt, or soymilk.  I love the sweet smell so much, it even scents my bathroom thanks to a vanilla reed diffuser.  On the rare occasion that I have a power outage, the candles I burn are even vanilla scented.

So, you can imagine just how thrilled I am to be going to a country that is one of the leading producers of vanilla beans in the world!

Vanilla extract is the most economical way to use the essence from the bean. Of all the different types of vanilla extract that are available on grocery store shelves, the most common one is Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla.

Although vanilla extract is made up of at least 35% alcohol by volume, the “bourbon” in “Bourbon Vanilla” is not the name of the alcohol used to make it.  Rather, it is the name for all vanilla grown in Madagascar and other islands in the Indian Ocean, including Comoros and Réunion. Réunion was formerly known as the Île Bourbon, and it is the name of that island that gave Bourbon Vanilla its name.

Bourbon vanilla beans come from the orchid, Vanilla.planifolia, which originated in Mexico and for centuries was the exclusive secret of the native Totonac Indians who were later conquered by the Aztecs. The Aztecs in turn were conquered by Hernán Cortés who brought vanilla pods with him back to Spain, thus introducing the flavorful beans to the rest of the world.

Around 1793, a vanilla vine was smuggled from Mexico to the island of Réunion and from there, the plant was introduced into Madagascar.

Vanilla orchid vine. (Photo from Daleys Fruit Tree Nursery)
The Vine

Vanilla grows as a vine, climbing up an existing tree (also called a tutor), pole, or other support.  Left alone, it will grow as high as possible on the support, with few flowers. Every year, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downward so the plant stays at heights accessible by a standing human. This also greatly stimulates flowering.

The leaves are alternate and arranged symmetrically opposite the stem.  The leaves are thick, dark green and leathery; they can reach up to 13 centimeters (5 inches) in length.

Vanilla flower.  Photo from Axel and Sophie Steenbergs Blog
The Flower

Vanilla flowers are greenish yellow in color and measure around 6 inches in length.  There is a coarse column surrounded by the lip.   The flowers can be naturally pollinated only by bees of the Melipona genus found in Mexico but since the bee does not exist in Madagascar, pollination has to be done by hand.

It wasn't until 1836 that Charles Morren, a Belgian botanist, discovered the pollination link between the bee and the plant. In 1841, Edmond Albius of Réunion developed an efficient method for fertilizing the flower by hand.

The sweet scented vanilla flower lasts about one day, sometimes less, so growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a labor-intensive task.

Each flower must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of opening.
Pollinating vanilla.  (Photo from madécasse as seen on

Vanilla pods on the vine.  They look like green beans.  (Photo from the Daily Smell)
The Bean

The distinctively flavored compounds of vanilla are found in the fruit, which results from the pollination of the flower.

Vanilla beans grow green on the vine - they look like clusters of green beans.

The vanilla bean grows quickly on the vine, but is not ready for harvest until maturity - about nine months after pollination of the flower.

Harvesting vanilla beans is done by hand and is as labor intensive as pollinating the flowers.  Beans are ready to be picked when the tip begins to turn yellow.

Each fruit ripens at its own time, requiring a daily harvest.  It's crucial to make sure all ripe beans are picked, at the right time, as over matured fruits are likely to split, causing a reduction in market value.

In the end, the commercial value of the bean is based on the length and appearance of the pod.  If the fruit is more than 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) in length, it is considered first quality product. The largest fruits, greater than 16 centimeters (6.3 inches) and up to as much as 21 centimeters (8.3 inches), in length are usually reserved for the gourmet vanilla market, for sale to top chefs and restaurants.

Fruits that are between 10 and 15 centimeters (3.9-5.9 inches) long are categorized as second-quality category, and fruits less than 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) in length fall under the third-quality category.

Vanilla bean yield depends on the care and management given to the hanging and fruiting vines. Under ideal conditions, a five-year-old vine can produce between 1.5 and 3 kilos (3.3 and 6.6 lbs) of pods, and can increase after a few years. The harvested green bean can be commercialized as such or cured to get a better market price.

Killing the beans. (Photo from VanillaProductsUSA)
The Curing Process

The curing process  is what gives the pods their characteristic brown color as well as their flavor and aroma.

In Mexico, they begin the curing process by wrapping the beans in blankets and straw mats and then placing them in ovens for 24 to 48 hours.  This step is known as *killing* the bean which effectively denatures the enzymes that would simply make the vanilla rot and allowing the enzymes that result in the curing process to start.  Then, the beans are spread in the sun to absorb heat during the day and then placed in large wooden boxes to sweat overnight.

In Madagascar, the curing process is very similar to that in Mexico with one slight difference. The farmers *kill* the beans by immersing them in hot water for a short time.

Collecting beans for sweating.  (Photo from Axel and Sophie Steenbergs Blog)
They then store them in sweat boxes before beginning the routine of spreading in the sun and packing away at night. The differences in the curing process between Mexico and Madagascar contributes to the overall flavor profile of that region's vanilla.
Once properly cured, the beans are then stored on racks and in conditioning boxes to further develop and mellow the flavor.  During this conditioning stage, the beans are handled regularly, softening and shaping them.  In the Madagascar, they roll the beans between their fingers, resulting in a rounded shape to the cured bean.

Quality control starts during the curing process and occurs periodically until the beans are packaged for sale.

Quality Control On Curing Vanilla Beans In Madagascar
Doing a quality check.  (Photo from Axel and Sophie Steenbergs Blog)

It's quite common to see Madagascar beans with a visible tattoo. These markings could easily be mistaken as insect damage, but they're really a series of pin-pricks that identify the bean grower.

Madagascan Vanilla With Their Individual Markings
Tattooed bean.  (Photo from Axel and Sophie Steenbergs Blog)

The entire curing process takes three to six months.

Sorting and Grading

Once fully cured, the vanilla beans are sorted by quality and graded.
Each country which produces vanilla has its own grading system, and individual vendors, in turn, sometimes use their own criteria for describing the quality of the beans they offer for sale.
In general, vanilla bean grade is based on the length, appearance (color, sheen, presence of any splits, presence of blemishes), and moisture content of the fruit.

Sorting beans by grade. Photo by Jonathan Talbot

Whole, dark, plump and oily pods that are visually attractive, with no blemishes, and that have a higher moisture content are categorized as highest grade. Such pods are particularly prized by chefs for their appearance and can be featured in gourmet dishes. Beans that show localized signs of disease or other physical defects are cut to remove the blemishes; the shorter fragments left are called “cuts” and are assigned lower grades, as are fruits with lower moisture contents.  Lower-grade fruits tend to be favored for uses in which the appearance is not as important, such as in the production of vanilla flavoring extract and in the fragrance industry.

Example of grading system used in Madagascar.  Image from Wikipedia.

As can be expected, higher grade fruits command higher prices in the market.  However, because grade is so dependent on visual appearance and moisture content, fruits with the highest grade do not necessarily contain the highest concentration of characteristic flavor molecules such as vanillin and therefore, are not necessarily the most flavorful. Damn, I was hoping that I could just rely on grade to buy the best quality, most flavorful bean but that's not going to work. how to pick the best?  Smell?  Yes, I am planning to bring beans back with me.  Can't go to the source of the best vanilla beans in the world and not bring home some!

As I was reading up on vanilla beans in Madagascar, I came across a couple of interesting articles.

The first tells the real life story of two American gus who went to Madagascar as a Peace Corps volunteers.  While there, they lived in the vanilla growing region of the country.  They quickly recognized the importance that vanilla had on the livelihood of the village.  Although Madagascar is one of the largest producers of vanilla bean, it actually produces less than 1 percent of the world's vanilla extract.  When the two guys returned to the US, their desire to do good in this world came back with them.  Recognizing the opportunity for Madagascar to not only grow beans but also to produce extract, they went about finding a way to make that happen.  The result is a brand of vanilla marketed under the brand name, Madécasse.  You can read their story here and buy their products online.

The other article describes a program, recently initiated by General Mills and their Häagen-Dazs business that,

"....provides access to training and education to several hundred small vanilla farmers in Madagascar to help them produce a more sustainable and higher quality vanilla crop. Through training, farmers will learn how to add value to their crop at the farm level. This includes learning the vanilla curing process, which will let vanilla growers significantly increase their incomes."
You can read more about the program here.

I'm going to be in foodie heaven, sniffing vanilla beans!  Can't wait!