Madagascar Vanilla Beans History
By Chad | October 1, 2019
Here at Lone Goose Bakery, our passion is premium baking products. We want to offer high quality ingredients that will take your next recipe to another level. One premium ingredient that is found in many baking recipes is vanilla. We noticed that our favorite vanilla beans that originate from Madagascar can be difficult to find and even lower grade options are prohibitively expensive. We decide to enter the market by offering the Grade A Madagascar Vanilla Beans at a reasonable price, and we are starting a series of posts on the same subject. I am going to start from the beginning and introduce you to the Madagascar Vanilla Beans History.
MADAGASCAR VANILLA BEANS HISTORY | GUIDE
The Country of Madagascar
Madagascar is a distinctive island nation with its own unique history, population, and culture. Entire books have been dedicated to this country, as it deserves. A quick list of some of the interesting Madagascar facts will be better for our purposes of introduction.
Here are the Top 7 Madagascar Facts
- Located in the Indian Ocean, it’s a 228k mi² island slightly smaller than Texas
- Split from India 88 million years ago, it’s now located off the African coast
- It’s the 2nd largest island nation and 4th largest island
- A former French colony from 1897-1958, it gained independence in 1960
- Malagasy is the official language but French is also spoken (esp. in cities)
- 90% of its wildlife is isolated on the island and completely unique
- Severe deforestation occurred with a 40% reduction in forest cover from 1950’s-2000
The vanilla plant is technically a flowering vine that is classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). There are three primary vanilla plant species that are commercially grown in different parts of the world. Those species are:
- V. planifolia – the main species originated in Mexico and is grown in Madagascar, Indonesia and other nearby islands
- V. tahitensis – A hybrid species primarily found in the South Pacific
- V. pompona – West Indies, Central & South America
The most common is Vanilla planifolia which is the species that is grown in Madagascar. It is also still grown in Mexico, where it was discovered growing naturally. Its high vanillin content and adaptability have made it the most popular species. Similar to most other natural food products and spices, the environment in which the plant is grown has a huge impact on the quality, flavor, aroma and appearance of vanilla beans.
Growing and Harvesting Vanilla
Vanilla is famous for being difficult to grow and harvest, which are the main factors contributing to the price. The vine takes three years to grow before it begins producing pods. The vanilla orchid is perennial but only blooms for a limited time and each one must be pollinated by hand. It is a painstaking process, but it is necessary to create the vanilla pods. While the pods are growing, the farmers are forced to guard their crop to prevent theft. Many put their initials on the pods to deter thieves. The pods develop for 9 months before they are ready for harvest.
When it is time to harvest the pods, they are still green. The farmers carefully pick them by hand, place them in hot water, then set them out to dry for 3-6 months.
The Growing and Harvesting Process
To help you better understand the timeline, I wanted to create a more detailed account of the process. It has helped me appreciate all of the work it takes to make delicious vanilla.
- Vine is planted and matures over 3-4 years
- The rainy season begins in October and the flowers begin to bloom
- Workers hand pollinate the flowers in the morning. They are forced to work quickly because the flowers close within hours.
- The harvest begins in July when the pods are still green and relatively odorless. At this point, they completely lack the famous vanilla flavor.
- The pods are treated with steam or dipped in hot water. This seals and protects the vanilla before aging.
- The pods are alternatively placed in the sun and shade to dry over time. Each farmer has their own unique aging method, which can last 3+ months. The color transitions from green to red to brown. This aging process develops the amazing vanilla scent and flavor.
- The vanilla pods are sorted based upon quality and are ready to sell.
Madagascar Vanilla Beans
The unique tropical climate of Madagascar is ideal for growing vanilla because the plant prefers high humidity, warm temperatures, moist/nutrient rich soil, and indirect sunlight. These factors come together to produce vanilla with a powerfully complex flavor that can’t be matched. The area of the island that grows vanilla is the Sava Region of Northern Madagascar, the vanilla harvesting capital of the world. The northeast portion of the island produces a majority of the world premium vanilla.
Madagascar Vanilla History & Economy
The cultivation of vanilla began in Madagascar in X. Since that time, the local cultivation techniques have improved, and a flourishing economy based on vanilla has continually developed. The popularity of Madagascar Vanilla has grown over the past several years, and the local markets have expanded. The island has started to rely so much on vanilla, that they are currently trying to use the money to help diversify the economy and grow it in other areas.
Madagascar Vanilla Price
Natural vanilla is one of the most expensive spices, only surpassed by rare spices like saffron. Madagascar vanilla is historically a premium product, so it commands a higher price. The intense growing/harvesting process (mentioned above) and extended timeline limits the available supply, and the worldwide demand for premium natural vanilla beans continues to grow. This has resulted in higher price trends over the past few years. These factors paired with unpredictable weather can make it difficult to obtain these precious vanilla beans, but it is well worth the effort!
Every 3-4 lbs of harvested vanilla pods result in 1 lb of aged vanilla ready to sell.
MADAGASCAR VANILLA BEANS HISTORY | CONCLUSION
Well, since you made it this far, you should now be more familiar with the colorful history of Madagascar Vanilla Beans. I know that this information has made me appreciate these precious beans even more. They have been on quite a journey before they are ready to be used in your next recipe. Now you’re ready to share that journey with others!
If you’re interested in getting your hands on some vanilla beans, you can go to the Lone Goose Bakery store to purchase some! There are all sorts of things you can do with vanilla beans. Be sure and check out my post on Facts about Vanilla Beans to find out more!
Thank you for your time!
I received some of your vanilla beans and noticed it was actually branded with some sort of Madagascar farm brand. I can’t imagine how much this valuable crop needs to be protected in a low GDP country like Madagascar. Have you ever traveled down there?
Hello Claire! Thanks for supporting us and for leaving an awesome comment! Yes, we actually have a picture of some of our vanilla beans that have been branded. We’ve also heard that many of the farmers sleep out in the fields with their vanilla beans to protect them from theft. We’re going to be writing another article on how the vanilla beans are purchased down there, and I’ll shoot you an email right before it drops!