Hello! I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world. My mother asked me if I could blog about vanilla since I've been to its homeland in Madagascar... and I saw it up close and personal on the island of Zanzibar, which is part of Tanzania. You'll see the two places I went circled in orange on the map: Zanzibar is an island off the mainland of Tanzania (it's tiny on the map to the left!) and Madagascar is a country unto itself. In Madagascar, I went to an island called Nosy Be (marked on map) as well as the capital. Both places are full of jungle-like forests and mud! It's the perfect place for growing spices. So, sit back, and take a picture tour with me of these two wonderful places where vanilla grows fresh!
My Favorite Spice: Vanilla!
The fact that vanilla is difficult to harvest (and thus expensive) may explain why it has been around for centuries - since at least the 15th century - but didn't reportedly enter recipe books until the early 1800s. Vanilla in the wild is rare because the flower that must be pollinated is open for pollination for only 24 hours! If that window is missed, there's no vanilla that season. No kidding! If pollination works, you get a 6-10 inch pod filled with vanilla bean seeds and eventually vanilla sticks.
Thankfully, locals have discovered how to "hand pollinate" the flower. According to the National Geographic, "Transplants of vanilla to tropical and presumably vanilla-friendly regions around the globe [was lacking until] Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave boy on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, figured out how to hand-pollinate the vanilla blooms using a stick and a flip of the thumb. The simple technique had far-reaching implications. Vanilla plantations sprang up across the globe, from Madagascar to India, Tahiti, and Indonesia. Today about 75 percent of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar and Réunion."
Still, because of the complications in growing vanilla, we humans only produce around 2000 metric tons per year, which is very little relative to demand, so 99% of vanilla we see in America is synthetic.
So, what does it look like in the wild? Is Madagascar-ian vanilla really superior? Let's find out!
Zanzibar: A Spice Farm Tour
Madagascar: The Home of Vanilla
I spent an afternoon on this sandbar trying to avoid a sunburn and swimming in the perfectly clear water. The locals were so incredible. And, of course, I bought some vanilla! I passed it to my mom this past weekend, and hopefully she'll make some good vanilla extract out of it!
One site describes Madagascar vanilla as:
The ‘classic’ vanilla. Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans are superior with flavor and aromatic qualities that make these beans the most popular. The flavor is rich, dark, and creamy with an overwhelming sweet, buttery aroma.
~ Take an organic plump vanilla bean. Make a slice from top to bottom without cutting entirely through and pull the bean slightly open. Place 2-3 beans in each jar and fill with 80+ proof vodka. Cap tightly, and store in a cool, dark place for 2-3 months, shaking once a week or so. The vodka will draw the vanilla out and grow darker in time. Use in cooking as you use any other vanilla extract.
~ You may dry the vanilla beans and run through a food processor to make a powder that can then be used in cookies or breads! Or mix 1 T. vanilla powder per lb. of organic sugar to make organic vanilla sugar.