Vanilla is grown within 10-20 degrees of the equator. Most vanilla beans available today are from Madagascar, Mexico and Tahiti.
As with wine, chocolate and coffee, vanilla from each country has its own distinctive flavor profile and characteristics, owing to the different climates, soils, curing methods and vanilla species. For instance, vanilla from Madagascar has a creamy, sweet flavor. Mexican vanilla is known for its hint of spice, along with sweet notes and Tahitian vanilla has fruity and flowery attributes.
Vanilla is the most popular and widely used flavor in the world, yet, it’s only cultivated in a few countries and regions. Below you will discover more about five vanilla-growing regions: Mexico, Madagascar, Tahiti, Indonesia and Uganda.
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 because of the symbiotic relationship between the vanilla orchid and a tiny, indigenous 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 tips begin 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 that point on, the beans are spread in the sun daily 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.
Tasting Notes: Mexican vanilla is a rich marriage of sweet and woody notes with a deep-spicy character, similar to clove or nutmeg.
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 Réunion island. For almost 50 years after its arrival, 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 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 growing conditions, helps create the distinct, rich and highly complex flavor profile for which Madagascar vanilla is known.
Tasting Notes: Vanilla from Madagascar has a sweet, creamy and mellow flavor.
Tahiti – Similar Climate, Different Species
Tahiti, an island in the southern Pacific, 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—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. Next, over a period of a month, growers expose the beans to the gentle morning sun 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 farmer’s 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.
Tasting Notes: Tahitian vanilla has a fruity, floral flavor with notes of cherry and almond.
Uganda – Two Harvests
Uganda is a landbound country in East Africa with rolling hills and low mountains. It is believed that vanilla was first introduced to Uganda in the 1940s by British farmers.
Unlike other growing regions, vanilla grown in Uganda can be harvested twice a year, in December and in June or July, due to the country’s distinct weather patterns. Although vanilla-pollinating bees do live in Uganda, they are too few and far between to be of much use, so Ugandan beans are hand pollinated. The beans are best picked when the ends become slightly yellow and split. Then, they go through a blanching, sweating and storing process similar to that of Madagascar.
Tasting Notes: Vanilla beans cultivated in Uganda are creamy, like Madagascar Bourbon, but slightly sweeter, with notes of chocolate.
Indonesia – A High Product Region
Indonesia has become the second largest producer of vanilla behind Madagascar, with production methods that emphasize quantity. Indonesian growers are known for harvesting all the beans from a vine at once, a labor-saving adjustment. Due differences in the cultivation and curing process as compared with the other regions, Indonesian vanilla beans offer a sharper, woodier profile. This curing method helps give the beans stability, which is needed for use in high-heat applications. Oftentimes Indonesian beans are blended with vanilla from other regions.
Nielsen-Massey Sources Vanilla from Several Countries
Nielsen-Massey sources vanilla from the world’s primary vanilla-growing countries: Madagascar, Mexico, Tahiti (including French Polynesian Islands), Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, India and Uganda. Each origin-specific extract has a distinct flavor resulting from the unique environment and curing process of the location it was grown. In turn, each extract has a recommended set of applications which allow its unique characteristics to shine through, highlighting other ingredients and maximizing the flavor of the resulting dish. For more information about suggested applications for each product, visit our Which Vanilla? blog.