Vanilla is the most popular and widely used flavor in the world. And, yet, it's only grown in a few countries and regions. Below you'll discover where the beans are grown, why these regions are ideal and how the vanilla from each region differs.
Mexico - The Birthplace of Vanilla
Vanilla (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. The Aztecs in turn were conquered by Cortez who brought vanilla pods with him back to Spain, thus introducing the flavorful beans to the rest of the world.
Even after its discovery by Europeans, Mexico was still the sole grower of vanilla beans for another 300 years. That's because of the symbiotic relationship between the vanilla orchid and an indigenous tiny bee called the Melipone. The bee was responsible for the pollination of the vanilla orchid flower, resulting in the production of the fruit.
Vanilla pods grow green on the vine and should be picked when the tip begins to turn yellow. The curing process is what gives the pods their characteristic brown color as well as their flavor and aroma. In Mexico, they cure the beans by wrapping them in blankets and straw mats and then place them in ovens for 24 to 48 hours. From this point on, the beans are spread in the sun to absorb heat during the day and then placed in large wooden boxes to sweat overnight. Once properly cured, they are then 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 and patience-testing endeavor.
Vanilla from Mexico has a flavor that combines creamy and woody notes with a deep, spicy character, making it a delicious complement to chocolate, cinnamon, cloves and other warm spices. Even more, Mexican vanilla works wonderfully in tomato sauces and salsas, where it smooths out the heat and acidity of these dishes.
For more information about when to use Mexican Pure Vanilla, visit our Which Vanilla page or our Recipes section.
Madagascar - The Discovery of Hand Pollination
Around 1793, a vanilla vine was smuggled from Mexico to the Bourbon Island of Réunion. Just east of the southern portion of Africa, the Bourbon Islands are made up 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).
For almost 50 years after its arrival at Réunion, the growth and production of vanilla struggled. The vines grew successfully with beautiful blossoms but vanilla pod growth was infrequent and unpredictable. Without the Melipone bee, the flowers weren't being fertilized beyond inadvertent pollination by occasional insects.
It wasn't until 1836 that Charles Morren, a Belgian botanist, discovered the pollination link between bee and plant. And then in 1841, Edmond Albius of Réunion developed an efficient method for fertilizing the flower by hand.
Eventually, the plants made their way to Madagascar where hand pollination proved advantageous over natural pollination. Now, 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 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 quantity and, some would even argue, quality.
In Madagascar, the curing process is very similar to that in Mexico with one slight difference. The farmers initiate the curing process by immersing the green vanilla beans in hot water for a short time. 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 (and as we'll soon discuss, Tahiti) contribute to the overall flavor profile of that region's vanilla.
The sweet, creamy and mellow flavor of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is the taste most people associate with vanilla. This flavor and the bean's ability to hold that flavor in both hot and cold applications make it an exceptional "all-purpose" vanilla to be used for a wide range of recipes—from cooking and baking to ice creams and buttercreams.
For more information about when to use Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla, visit our Which Vanilla page or our Recipes section.
Tahiti - Similar Climate, Different Species
Similar to the other countries, Tahiti's tropical climate makes it ideal for growing vanilla while hand pollination makes it possible to fertilize the flowers. However, Tahiti differs in the species of vanilla that is most prevalent: Vanilla tahitensis Moore.
Vanilla tahitensis Moore is actually the hybrid of two vanilla species introduced to this southern Pacific island chain in the 1800s. 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 in the next few decades, resulting in the plump Tahitian vanilla beans we know today. Large-scale cultivation of Vanilla tahitensis began in the 1880s and is still very prominent.
The curing process of Tahiti also differs from the other countries. Mature beans are first stacked in a cool place until they are completely brown (five to ten days) and then rinsed in clear water, a unique characteristic of 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 vanilla beans lose weight and shrink. Throughout this phase, the beans are worked by hand, smoothing and flattening the pod between the thumb and index finger. After a month, when the vanilla has received its fill of sunlight, the farmers final step is to leave the beans to dry in a shaded and ventilated spot for 40 days to lower the beans' moisture content.
This species of orchid combined with the advantageous climate and soil results in a vanilla that has fruity and flowery notes. Tahitian vanilla is especially susceptible to the rigors of heat and is therefore best used in refrigerated and frozen desserts, pastry creams, fruit pies, smoothies, shakes and puddings. This susceptibility to heat also makes our cold extraction process ideal for keeping the flavor intact in the production of Tahitian Pure Vanilla Extract.
For more information about when to use Tahitian Pure Vanilla, visit our Which Vanilla page or our Recipes section.
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 the 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 also features production shortcuts such as the use of propane heaters to speed up drying. As you can imagine, the use of heat, which chemically alters the beans, essentially "burns off" flavor components while adding a smoky tone, resulting in a less complex taste.
Even when using proper production methods, Indonesian vanilla has a sharper, woodier flavor. With these reasons in mind, we don'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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