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.
While 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.
Around 900 producers have organized themselves into a cooperative and are working to improve cultivation and processing techniques and to promote the vanilla on the national and international market. The villages’ remote position and the single unpaved road linking them to the rest of the world have severely hindered direct sales. Even though vanilla is one of the world’s most expensive spices, the growers usually receive only a tiny share of its market value and most of the profits go to intermediaries.
By creating a cooperative and facilitating direct sales by the producers, the Presidium wants to guarantee them a better profit margin, which can then be reinvested into the local community.
The project also has an important environmental aspect: Madagascar has an extraordinary wealth of biodiversity and the vanilla producers live in one of the country’s three biosphere reserves. Working in collaboration with the Mananara Biosphere Reserve, the Presidium producers are committed to respecting the forest, avoiding “slash and burn” or the indiscriminate cutting of trees for timber.
What is a Slow Food Presidia?
The Slow Food Presidia are projects sustaining quality production at risk of extinction, protecting unique regions and ecosystems, recovering traditional processing methods, safeguarding native breeds and local plant varieties.
Check out our website: http://www.slowfoodfoundation.com/presidia
Photos — Paola Viesi