Vanilla discovery tour

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Whether exploring a national park in the SAVA region or just travelling through Sambava, the de facto capital of the world's vanilla agriculture, a tour of a vanilla plantation combined with a visit to a vanilla production facility can give visitors an insight into the lenghty and labour intensive process of transforming the green fruits of vanilla orchids into the fragrant black natural vanilla spice that is a highly appreciated ingredient in quality ice creams, pastries and countless other food products.

What can be seen depends on the activities that are happening at the time of visiting. Between May and June, the picking of green vanilla beans is done across plantations on the northwest coast around Sambava, Antalaha and Vohemar as well as further inland, while at higher altitudes, around Andapa and Marojejy, the harvesting usually takes place in July and early August.

After harvesting, the green vanilla crops are brought by farmers to organised vanilla markets across all vanilla producing regions where buyers will bid for their harvests. A minimum price is set by the governent each year, which in 2022 was 75,000 Ar per kilogram of green vanilla.

The crops are bought mainly by exporters and producers who manage the months-long transformation of the green beans into black vanilla beans. The beans will lose moisture and shrink during the drying process and every six kilos of green beans, approximately one kilogram of black vanilla beans will be produced.

Througout the transformation process, known as the curing process, the beans are graded and grouped into classifications: Grade A being Gourmet Quality, Grade B Extract quality and Grade C known as Cuts & Splits. These classifications, sometimes mistaken for indicators of quality, are in fact classifications based on humidity and therefore suitability for different uses. Low-humidity beans are suited for large-scale food processing purposes as they can easily be ground into powder and mixed into various food products. Grade B, or Extract grade vanilla beans, is the definition for the vanilla grade that is typically used for the production of vanilla extracts, while Grade A beans, or gourmet quality beans that are of the highest humidity, have also been set aside in part for their appearance as favoured by chefs and end-consumers who will typically split open the pods to scrape out its contents and mix into various cooking and baking creations. Yet, all grades can be used in cooking and baking. While grade A may have a stronger scent and a better overall appearance, Grade B or even C with its lowest moisture content will offer the greatest volume per kilogram, effectively providing more vanilla and flavouring for the same weight at a lower price than Grade A beans.

In Madagascar, vanilla is rarely used in home cooking and is almost exclusively farmed for export purposes. Since the price of vanilla peaked at around USD 500 per kilo in 2018 and 2019, countless farmers have invested their time and efforts in cultivating vanilla as their primary cash crop.

Vanilla beans grow best in light but shaded conditions. Partly and fully grown green vanilla beans can be seen at plantations between March and up until harvesting time.

Historically, the type of vanilla grown in Madagascar is the Planifolia species, also known as Bourbon vanilla or simply Madagascar vanilla.

The species originates from Mesoamerica where it grew centuries ago

The "Bourbon" partis a hostroical reference a French owned slave on La Reunion, then known as Bourbon Island, who discovered how to pollinate the vanilla orchids by hand to bear their fiuits, since in its original environment, pollination only occurs by bees native to Mexico.

Apart from flavouring sweets in countless food and drink products, vanilla is used in essential oils, cosmetics, toiletries, perfumes as well as in medicines.

The medicinal values are ...

The price of different vanilla has in part been determinded by its vanillin percentage, the higher the vanillin percentage, the the higher the price, with the Thaitian variety having fetched record prices in recent years while the Mexican variately (Pompona) having had the lowest and the Magascan planifolia usually placed between.

While a high vanillin percentage may look good on paper, studies have shown that high values of 2% or more does not necesssarily equate to an improved taste quality. Instead, beans with a vanillin percentage value of around 1.7% were considered to have the most balanced flavour profile and the highest overall score.

There are subtle taste differences, which may easily only be distinquisged by a gourmandise chef and while the terroir makes a difference, Planifolia is known for its floral notes, Pompona for having a more subtle flavour and Thaitian being known for its anaise notes and sweetness. Thaitian, being a hybrid between Planifolia and Odorata, it prove difficult to tell the differnce between a Planifolia and Tahitian grown in a same terroir somewhere in for example Madagascar.


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