The Origins of Vanilla

Vanilla is the most popular and widely used flavor in the world. And, yet, it’s only cultivated in a few countries and regions. Below you’ll discover more about four vanilla-growing regions.

Mexico – The Birthplace of Vanilla

The vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia Andrews) originated in Mexico and for centuries was the exclusive secret of the native Totonac Indians who were later conquered by the Aztecs. When the Aztec empire fell to Hernán Cortés, vanilla pods were brought back to Spain, thus introducing the flavorful beans to the rest of the world.

Mexico remained the sole growing region for vanilla beans for another 300 years. That’s because of the symbiotic relationship between the vanilla orchid and an indigenous tiny bee called the Melipona. This Mexican bee is the only insect evolved to pollinate the vanilla orchid flower.

Vanilla beans grow green on the vine and are harvested when the tip begins to turn yellow. The curing process is what gives the beans their characteristic brown color as well as their flavor and aroma. In Mexico, the curing process involves wrapping beans in blankets and straw mats and then placing them in ovens for 24 to 48 hours. From this point on, the beans are spread in the sun each day to absorb heat and then placed in large wooden boxes overnight to sweat.

Once properly cured, the beans are stored on racks and in conditioning boxes to further develop and mellow the flavor. The entire curing process takes three to six months, making it a very labor-intensive endeavor.

Madagascar – The Discovery of Hand Pollination for Vanilla

Located just east of the southern portion of Africa, the area known as the Bourbon Islands includes the islands of Réunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoro and Seychelles. Hence, when we refer to Madagascar Bourbon, we’re referring to the region and not to the liquor.

Around 1793, a vanilla vine was smuggled from Mexico to the Bourbon Island of Réunion. For almost 50 years after its arrival at Réunion, the growth and production of vanilla was difficult. The vines grew successfully with beautiful blossoms but seldom resulted in vanilla pods. Without the Melipona bee, vanilla’s indigenous pollinator in Mexico, the flowers were only occasionally pollinated by local insects.

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

Eventually, hand pollination was perfected on a commercial scale. Growers could choose the best flowers and properly space them out on the vine, resulting in a healthier and higher quality vanilla pod. Combined with the hot, humid climate and rich soil, hand pollination by the country’s skilled and patient farmers has enabled Madagascar to become the world’s top vanilla producer in both quantity and quality.

In Madagascar, the curing process is similar to that of Mexico with one slight difference; the farmers initiate the curing process by immersing the green vanilla beans in hot water for a short time. The farmers then store the beans in sweat boxes before beginning the routine of spreading beans in the sun and packing them away at night. This unique curing process, along with the rich soil and growing conditions, helps create the unique, rich, and highly complex flavor profile Madagascar vanilla is known for.

Tahiti – Similar Climate, Different Species

Tahiti, an island which is part of a southern Pacific island chain, has a tropical climate that makes it an ideal location for growing vanilla.  In 1848, French Admiral Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin brought Vanilla aromatica plants to Tahiti, and, two years later, French Admiral Louis-Adolphe Bonard imported Vanilla fragrans plants. These two species were skillfully crossbred during the next few decades, resulting in the plump Tahitian vanilla beans we know today, known as Vanilla tahitensis. 

Tahitian vanilla is cured differently than vanilla grown in Madagascar or Mexico.   Mature beans are stacked in a cool place for five to ten days until they are completely brown. They are then rinsed in clear water, a process unique to Tahiti. For the next month, growers expose the beans to the gentle morning sun for three-to-four hours a day. In the afternoon, they wrap the beans in cloth and store them in crates until the next morning, to promote transpiration.

Little by little, the water evaporates, causing the beans to shrink. Throughout this phase, the bean pods are smoothed and flattened by hand between the thumb and index finger. After a month, when the vanilla has received its fill of sunlight, the beans are left for 40 days to dry in a shaded and ventilated spot, which reduces their moisture content.

Indonesia – A High Production Region
Indonesia has become the second largest producer of vanilla behind Madagascar. However, Indonesian production methods focus on quantity over quality. Unlike other regions, where vanilla beans are picked only when ripe, Indonesian growers are known for harvesting all the beans from a group of vines at one time, a labor-saving adjustment.

The curing process in Indonesia features production shortcuts such as the use of propane heaters to accelerate drying. The use of heat chemically alters the beans, however, destroying complex flavor components while adding a smoky tone.

Indonesian vanilla has a sharper, woodier flavor than other varieties. For these reasons, Nielsen-Massey doesn’t make an Indonesian origin-specific extract. That’s not to say Indonesian vanilla doesn’t have its uses and advantages; it holds up well when blended with vanillas from other regions and, because it’s less expensive than other vanillas, it keeps the cost of the product down.

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