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  • 1. History and Origin of vanilla


    Vanilla is native to tropical America (Mexico) and it was the discovery of the New World by the conquistadors that brought it to Europe.

    The Mexicans had used vanilla for a long time and its Aztec name was "Tlilxochill" or "black flower". Hernando Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, was undoubtedly the first European to taste this spice when he was served vanilla-flavoured chocolate in a golden goblet by the Emperor Montezuma.

    Despite the care taken by the Aztecs to hide the secret of the drink's flavour, the Conquistadores quickly discovered it. From 1510 vanilla was imported to Spain and from 1604 to France where it was commonly used in coffee and chocolate.

  • 2. Expansion of cultuvation

    fleur du vanillier

    In the early nineteenth century, plants were sent to Java, Reunion, and Mauritius to attempt to cultivate the precious vanilla but in the absence of natural pollination by an insect endemic to Mexico, cultivation proved impossible on these islands.

    Artificial pollination of the vanilla plant was first achieved in 1836 by Charles Morren at the Botanical Garden of Liege then in 1837 by the Frenchman, Neumann. However, in 1841, a young slave, Edmond Albius, invented the method which is still used today.

    Vanilla cultivation then spread to Reunion Island (better known then as "Bourbon Island") in 1848, the Seychelles in 1866, Madagascar in 1871, Comoros in 1891, Tahiti in 1898, and Uganda and Ceylon in 1912. 


    The vanilla plant, which can reach up to fifteen metres in length, is a vine with green knotty, fleshy, cylindrical, and far reaching stems.  They cling to trees and any other support by 2 mm diameter adventitious roots. The main stem has a diameter of one to two centimetres.

    The leaves are green and evergreen growing to 15 - 25 centimetres with a width of 5 - 8 centimetres. The trumpet-shaped flowers are bright yellow and fragrant.

    Stamens, style, and stigma are fused to form the gynandrium.  Pollen is transferred to the stigma by hand. The wind has no pollinating action due to the arrangement of the parts of the flower.

    The fruit is an elongated green pod. Pods grow on a raceme of around ten fruit of various lengths between 10 and 20 centimetres. The fruit turns yellow and brown on maturity, at which time it is harvested.

    Of the hundred or so known species which are more or less localised, three have been historically identified as source of natural vanillin:

    • Vanilla Pompona Shiede : mainly found in Tropical America, Brazil, Guyana, and grown in the Caribbean (Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Trinidad). As this vanilla has a very low yield, cultivation was quickly abandoned. It is better known under the name of "vanillon" or "banana vanilla" with a production of a few hundred kilos per year. The pods are short, with an average length of 10 to 12 cm, and 1-3 cm wide. Odorous principle: VANILLIN
    • Vanilla Tahitentis Moore : introduced to Polynesia in 1848 by Admiral R. Hamelin. In the 50s, French Polynesia was the second top vanilla producer behind Madagascar with a production of 200 tonnes. The cultivation of this spice, penalised by the development of the global production structure and dissuasive labour costs, has steadily declined to stabilise at just a few tonnes per year. In addition, its lower vanillin content and strong aniseed aroma also encouraged user industries to turn to Bourbon or Indonesian vanilla. Tahiti vanilla is mainly used by the perfume industry in the form of extracts and in "gourmet" pods for baking. Odorous principle: HELIOTROPIN
    • Vanilla Planifolia or Vanilla Fragrans :  Introduced to the Indian Ocean in the late 19th century, it is the most produced and marketed vanilla in the world and is grown in Madagascar, Comoros, and Reunion (called "Bourbon vanilla" for these three origins) as well as India, Indonesia, Uganda, Mexico, and Tonga.


    The vanilla plant can only survive between 10 and 20 degrees latitude North and South at an altitude of less than 700 metres. Average temperature should be between 21°C and 31°C. The soil should be well drained and rich in organic matter, with moderate rainfall, and between sun and shade.

    Vanilla plants need a support on which to climb and find shade. Vanilla plantations generally plant small trees capable of supporting the weight of the vanilla plant later beforehand. These trees are generally physic nut, coffee, avocado, cashew, or mango trees.

    The term "under crop" is specifically reserved for Indian plantations which have widely developed the combine cultivation of peppers, cashews, or coconuts with vanilla.
    India also has intensive "undershade" vanilla plantations which produce a high yield of green vanilla.

    Vanilla plants generally flower three years after planting.  Artificial pollination requires plants to be inspected every day for two or three months. Once successfully pollinated, vanilla fruit reaches its adult size in six weeks but is only harvested at maturity seven or eight months later.

    Artificial pollination is performed by women ("marriers") or children using a bevelled sliver of bamboo. A good worker can pollinate between 1,000 and 1,500 flowers a day. One plant produces between 4 to 10 raceme representing between 40 and 120 pods.

    With an average yield of 5 kg of green vanilla for 1 kg of cured vanilla (see curing-conditioning) a good vanilla plantation produces between 500 and 800 kg of cured vanilla per hectare for an average of 8-9 years (Madagascan standards).

    Reproduction is generally made by planting cuttings of around 1 - 1.5 metres in length.


    The curing method described below is the "Bourbon method" which has been massively adopted by producing countries. After picking, vanilla curing consists of six operations. Each stage is important.

    Killing: This operation involves dipping wicker baskets containing green vanilla pods in water heated at 65°. Immersion lasts for about three minutes and is intended to kill the pod.

    Sweating: The pods are then stacked in large wooden crates padded with wool blankets to retain the heat for twelve hours (sweating). It is at this stage that the vanilla takes on its characteristic chocolate brown colour, the fermentation catalyst helps it to subsequently develop the characteristic vanilla aroma.

    Drying: Intermittent exposure to shade and sunlight. The pods are laid out on wooden racks. Sun-drying only lasts for about two weeks, shade-drying, following sorting, lasts for more than a month.

    Conditioning: The pods are then placed in wooden crates wrapped in paraffin paper for eight months. The fragrance appears late and is refined during this period. The crates are checked every week and any mouldy pods are removed.

    Grading: The pods are measured and classified one by one as "split" "non split" "black and red". The length and colour determine the value of the vanilla. Pods of the same length and classification are generally tied into small bundles. Each bundle weighs about 250 grammes (70 - 100 pods). The weight and number of pods depend on the quality.

    Packaging: Pods are packed into tin or reinforced cardboard boxes wrapped in paraffin paper. Vacuum packaging of unbundled vanilla which is sorted into batches of 1.5 or 10 kg for better conservation is the new packaging method used by the majority of Madagascan exporters.

    All of these operations result in a 40 - 50% weight loss compared to the initial weight.

    Vanilla cultivation and curing require constant attention, ancestral know-how, and are labour intensive.


    Cured vanilla is graded by quality. Below is an example of a Grading System used in Madagascar which is used as a benchmark for the majority of producing countries

    First and third black (Premium vanilla):   

    Whole Black Vanilla 14-20 cm
    Moisture content > 25%
    Vanillin content: 2%

    Third and fourth Red (for Extraction):

    Split or non-split Red Vanilla 14-20 cm
    Moisture content < 25%
    Vanillin content: minimum 1.8%

    Short (for Extraction):

    Split or non-split Red Vanilla 11-14 cm
    Moisture content < 25%
    Vanillin content: 1.4-1.5%

    Cuts (for Extraction):

    Vanilla cuts of 2 - 3 cm
    Moisture content < 20%
    Vanillin content: minimum 1%

    The extensively used artificial vanilla product known as 'Vanillin', frequently labelled as being "identical to natural vanilla", is, in fact, a chemical product containing synthetic "vanillin" synthesised from petroleum derivatives.

    While global production of artificial vanilla is around 12,000 tonnes per year, world production of natural vanilla is 30 tonnes. Although the price of artificial vanilla is much lower it cannot really substitute natural vanilla as natural vanilla aroma is much more complex with over two hundred specific components.

    For Vanilla Planifolia grown on the east coast of Madagascar
    From planting to marketing

    In Madagascar at the end of the dry season
    Cuttings of 100 - 150 cm or longer (300 - 400 cm)
    Cuttings should have at least 8 - 10 nodes

    + 36 months
    (rapid growth of the vine 0.60 - 120 cm per month)

    over a period of about 3 months

    + 1 - 2 months: final pod size
    + 7 - 8 months: pod maturity

    when the pod measures 14 - 20 cm between June and September over a period of 3 months

    POD CURING (N + 4)
    Pod killing
    Sweating: pods turn chocolate brown
    Sun dried for 2 - 4 weeks
    Dried in shade for 2 - 3 months
    Conditioned in boxes for 2 - 3 months with constant monitoring of the pods

    EXPORT (N + 4.5)

    from December / January


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