Madagascar Vanilla Bean Bourbon
Madagascar vanilla known as Vanilla planifolia variety benefits from the Bourbon appellation. We talk here about quality vanilla that attracts simple consumers and high-end gastronomy professionals. This variety cultivated in Madagascar isremains the most cultivated in the world for commercial purposes among the three varieties of vanilla.
The varieties of vanilla bean sold on the market
Botanists identify around 115 species of vanilla bean in the world. However, only three of them are cultivated and marketed in the world: Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla tahitensis and Vanilla pompona. These varieties of vanilla are cultivated in different vanilla producing countries, each of them has its own specificity and a production that is crawling on the market. In Madagascar and throughout the Indian Ocean, Vanilla planifolia constitutes the bulk of vanilla plantations.
Vanilla planifolia (or V. fragans)
Vanilla planifolia is an edible orchid native to Mexico. The pollination of the flowers is carried out by a local bee called Melipona. It is for this reason that production in other countries was late, Mexico dominated the vanilla market in the 17th and 17th centuries. Natural pollination was not discovered until much later. This subsequently propelled producers in the Indian Ocean to make Madagascar the world’s largest producer and exporter of Madagascar vanilla bean bourbon in the world. Apart from its original cultivation area, Mexico, Vanilla planifolia is cultivated in the Indian Ocean, but also in other countries: India, Indonesia, Uganda, Tonga Islands, etc.
Vanilla tahitensis, also called Polynesian vanilla bean, is cultivated in the Pacific Ocean. It is mainly found in French Polynesia, especially Tahiti, but also in Papua New Guinea. It differs above all from the Vanilla planifolia pod by its indihescence, its fragrance and its size of about 4-5 cm in diameter, which is double that of Vanilla planifolia.
Vanilla pompona, also called vanillon or banana vanilla bean, is the variety of vanilla cultivated mainly in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Brazil and Guyana. The peculiarity of the variety is its short and large pod, hence the name vanilla banana.
Bourbon vanilla bean
Bourbon vanilla refers to the production of vanilla trees that grow in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar, Comoros, Mauritius, the Seychelles and of course Reunion Island (formerly called Bourbon). Bourbon vanilla bean is a name often used wrongly. What is behind this appellation that we use to qualify quality pods? Contrary to popular belief, the name “bourbon” does not refer to quality, but rather to the production of vanilla which is generally sourced from the Indian Ocean. Note that Bourbon vanilla bean is of the Vanilla planifolia variety (or V. fragrans). Bourbon vanilla bean is a label created in 1964 to precisely differentiate the vanilla grown in the islands of the Indian Ocean from other vanilla type Vanilla planifolia originating in Indonesia, India or the Congo. The appellation bourbon vanilla is therefore reserved for the variety of vanilla that grows on Reunion Island, Madagascar, the Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles. Vanilla planifolia originates from Mexico. It was first introduced on the island of Reunion and subsequently cultivated on the island of Madagascar and the other islands of the Indian Ocean. Madagascar has become the main producer and exporter of vanilla in the world. The country exports an average of 1,500 tonnes each year.
Reunionese production loses its splendor
Once a bastion of global vanilla bean production, Reunion Island has lost its splendor over time as many producer countries emerge on the global vanilla market. It should be remembered that the production of vanilla in the Indian Ocean began in Réunion. In 1841, the young Edmond Albius unexpectedly discovered a way to manually fertilize the fleeting flowers of vanilla. This is the start of the expansion of the vanilla plantation in Reunion. The island experienced remarkable growth from 1848 and became the main area for planting Vanilla planifolia in the 1930s. However, local production has fallen sharply over the past three decades. Even at the start of the 1990s, Reunion’s production amounted to 80 tonnes per year. In the 2010s, the vanilla bean production volume continuously declined to only 10 tonnes in 2019.
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This drop in production is mainly due to strong competition from the neighboring islands of Réunion, mainly the Comoros archipelago and Madagascar. The islands of the Indian Ocean share the appellation “Bourbon vanilla” for their vanilla production. In Madagascar, vanilla cultivation occupies the entire eastern part with a high concentration of vanilla plantation in the north. In Réunion, few areas are currently allocated to the vanilla plantation. In 2014, vanilla plantations represented 250 hectares, only 0.4% of the UAA cultivated on the island. These plantations are piled up on the east and south-east coasts, between the municipalities of Sainte-Suzanne and Saint-Joseph.
Reunionese producers are currently encountering several major issues, including low production in relation to global demand, very long cultivation times and competition from neighboring islands. But despite this weak competition from Reunionese vanilla, production obtained two gold medals in the “Organic vanilla” and “Lavas vanilla” category in 2019. According to the authorities, the revival of production growth requires the implementation of implementation of three priority actions: the establishment of new cultivation areas (shade house, undergrowth and fields), the structured production of cuttings with suitable varieties, the IGP (protected geographical indication) approach and the development of organic certifications .
The establishment of vanilla in Madagascar
The establishment of vanilla cultivation in Reunion in the 19th century occurred in three stages and three different places: Cayenne (French Guiana), Manila (Philippines) and Muséum de Paris (France). 20 years later, the Reunionese planters introduced vanilla to Madagascar, first on the island of Nosy Be and then in the north-east. The SAVA region has become the main vanilla production area in Madagascar. This region brings together the cities of Sambava, Antalaha, Vohemar and Andapa. The city of Sambava is known as the capital of vanilla. This area provides 95% of Madagascar’s vanilla production.
The quality of vanilla without the term Bourbon
Bourbon vanilla is often synonymous with good bean. This label is wrongly associated with the quality of the pods. You should know that a good pod has a moisture content greater than or equal to 33%, a length greater than 17 cm, a vanillin rate of 2.2 to 2.5%, whether it is bourbon vanilla or other. Since the bulk of the world vanilla supply consists of Bourbon vanilla, especially that from Madagascar, it is Bourbon vanilla that sets the benchmark in terms of quality.
Preparation of pods, decisive in quality
The preparation process used by most producers is that developed in Réunion. This is particularly the case of vanilla producers in Madagascar. This process concerns Vanilla planifolia. Tahitian vanilla uses another processing technique that does not include scalding. Tahitian pods are dried over a longer period of time with alternating sun exposure and shade drying.
After harvesting the pods, they are immediately scalded in hot water at 65 ° C for 3 minutes. Scalding loosens the pod and causes vegetative arrest. The maturation of the pod is therefore stopped, the chemical process for the development of the aroma then starts.
The pod is immediately placed in a wooden box lined with woolen blankets to maintain the temperature as long as possible, generally. The pods will sweat during this 24 to 72 hour steaming. A chemical process is set in motion and transforms glucovanillin into vanillin.
At the end of scalding, the pod turns a brown color. The pod is then dried in the sun and in the shade. Sun drying takes a few hours a day for 10 to 15 days. The goal is to obtain a minimum humidity level which is necessary to trigger the aromatic development of the pod. Sun drying is followed by shade drying for 1 to 2 months in a well-ventilated and well-ventilated space. The pods are sorted regularly and rigorously by hand during drying in the shade to remove rotten and less aesthetically pleasing pods.
After drying and sorting, the pods are placed in wooden trunks covered with baking or paraffin paper. This step is called “refining”. It consists of protecting the pods from the outside air, avoiding any risk of mold and above all enhancing the aroma of vanilla. The ripening of the pods lasts 6 to 8 months. After this long transformation process, the prepared vanilla is finally ready to be marketed.