Why Madagascar Vanilla Beans Are The Gold Standard of Vanilla

Despite its connotations of being the ‘plain Jane’ flavour of all ice creams, vanilla bean actually has one of the most alluring and complex flavour profiles known to man. The island of Madagascar is the heart of vanilla bean production, accounting for 80% of the world’s vanilla, and boasts the finest quality vanilla beans found anywhere on this planet.

What are Madagascar vanilla beans?

Not actually beans, Madagascar vanilla beans are the fruit or seed pod of the orchid species, vanilla planifolia. The vanilla orchid is native to Mexico and the vanilla genus comprises over 100 species of vanilla plants, but only a handful are cultivated on a commercial scale. The vanilla planifolia species is the most common type of vanilla bean produced, and it is the choice variety grown in Madagascar. 

What do Madagascar vanilla beans taste like?

Describing Madagascar vanilla’s bouquet is a challenge, despite being a beloved familiar flavour to so many. Some have even gone as far as to say vanilla possesses the most complex flavour on earth, making it impossible to describe, but this is part of its indisputable allure. What you can taste is floral, sweet, and earthy notes, which are undeniably comforting. 

The leading flavour of vanilla is materialised by the presence of vanillin, an organic compound that delivers that signature sweet, warm and creamy flavour. Madagascar vanilla is especially prized for its higher levels of vanillin compared with vanilla beans from other countries. While vanillin is the dominant flavour compound, there are over 250 other compounds found in vanilla beans, manifesting as nuanced spicy, floral and fruity notes. 

Artificial vanilla flavouring is made using synthesised vanillin, and thus the exclusion of all the other flavour compounds result in a flavour which is much more flat than pure vanilla extract. 

What makes Madagascar vanilla beans so special?

Madagascar vanilla beans are the gold standard of vanilla worldwide. The abundant rainfall and fertile soil in Madagascar’s humid northeastern reaches provide optimal growing conditions for these treasured pods. But, it is the hard work of the Madagascar people that make this regional spice so special. 

The elusive art of growing and curing quality vanilla beans is painstakingly done by hand at every stage. Since vanilla grown outside of Mexico has no natural pollinators, each vanilla orchid flower must be manually, and delicately, pollinated by hand. 

The people of Madagascar have developed a unique technique to grow vanilla beans, dating back to 1841. Named “Edmond’s gesture”, this technique denotes how farmers carefully join the male and female parts of the flower together using a whittled stick, allowing the prized vanilla bean to grow. 

In a true labour of love, three years of dedication are invested in each new vanilla orchid vine before they can begin producing flowers. When vanilla orchids finally make their grand appearance, they remain in bloom for less than 24 hours. Farmers must closely observe their vines during the blooming period and work quickly and carefully upon the opening of the flower buds. From this point, each pollinated flower will produce just one precious vanilla bean. Each bean then grows green on the vine for six months before they are ready for harvest. 

After the arduous stretch of time invested into growing the vanilla beans, then comes the evermore arduous task of curing the vanilla beans. Of course, the Madagascar farmers are pros, with their expert curing skills rewarding them with vanilla beans with the highest level of vanillin. 

Green vanilla beans are flavourless when first harvested, as they require an enzymatic reaction to develop those signature flavours. Vanilla beans will sunbathe for 30 days before they are wrapped up in blankets to sweat in the tropical night air. Much like the most expensive cows reared for meat production, these luxurious vanilla beans are even massaged to ensure even curing throughout. 

How do you use Madagascar vanilla beans?

To unleash the magical flavour of Madagascar vanilla beans, slice the bean open lengthwise with a paring knife. Use the spine of the knife to scrape out the black inner seeds, known as vanilla caviar. Add this vanilla caviar to cake batter, cookie dough, frosting, sauces, syrups, drinks and more. 

The scraped-out pods can also be placed into a jar of cane sugar to make vanilla sugar, or used to infuse a bottle of spirit. 

Popular pairings include cocoa powder, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, mace ginger, anise seed, cloves, all spice and lavender.