The Aztecs were the first to use vanilla, and it is still cultivated in the tropical forests of Central America. However, some of the world’s best vanilla is grown in Madagascar, far from its homeland. Introduced to the island by French colonists in the mid-1800s, vanilla flourished in the rainforests along the island’s northeast coast. Today, Madagascar is one of the biggest vanilla-producing countries in the world.
In the Mananara Nord Biosphere Reserve, created by UNESCO and ANGAP, the Presidium grows vanilla in the shade of the rainforest trees, a few meters above sea level.
The orchid Vanilla planifolia has long, thin, flexible climbing stems, with few branches. Mananara vanilla grows up living supports, namely the native forest trees. Once the plants reach human height, they are folded over (bouclage) to encourage the development of flowers along the descending part of the stem. Whereas in Mexico stingless Melipona bees pollinate the flowers, in Madagascar, as in other countries, the flowers are pollinated by hand. The plant flowers between September and January. Every dry morning the producers delicately pollinate the buds using a stick. After pollination, the flowers develop into long pale-green pods, odorless and full of seeds, similar to fresh green beans.
The black, soft, vanilla-scented pods with which we are more familiar are obtained after a lengthy production process. As soon as they are harvested, the green pods are immersed for a few minutes in hot water, then left to sit for two days in a wooden box, lined with a woolen blanket called the drape à vanille. The pods are then dried in the sun: Every day for a whole month, the pods are laid out on the drape à vanille over cane or wood racks, and exposed to the sun for two to three hours. They are then wrapped in the drape and left for another couple of hours in the sun before being brought back into the house. This process allows the pods to exude moisture, while the endemic enzymes release vanilla’s main aromatic component, vanillin.
Finally, the vanilla pods are arranged on wood or cane shelves in special small storerooms, where they are regularly checked and sorted by the producers.
After the drying, the producers work the individual pods by hand, rubbing them with their fingers to stretch them out.
36 villages in the Mananara Nord Biosphere Reserve
Mananara – cooperative of growers from Mananara villages)
tel. +261 332526114