On March 24th, 120+ pastry professionals—pastry chefs, sous chefs, cooks, bakers, business owners and students—gathered at ICC for the second Pastry Plus Conference. In addition to the morning forum, panel discussion and keynote address, conference goers selected three breakout classes to attend from nine different topics surrounding craft, innovation and workplace in the pastry industry. One of the first sessions of the day, Vanilla: Anything But Plain, dove into the world of one of the most beloved, and difficult to source, ingredients.
Beth Nielsen—3rd generation owner & Vice President of Culinary for Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, Pastry Plus contributing sponsor—as well as Emily Luchetti—Chief Pastry Officer of Big Night Restaurant Group and ICC Dean of Pastry—offered up their expertise on the complex flavors, agriculture, production and varietals of vanilla.
In this sold-out session, attendees tasted five different vanilla varietals, generously provided by Nielsen-Massey, in a dessert that relies on prominent vanilla flavors—pot de créme (basically a créme brûlée without the brûlée)! The vanilla samples all came from countries near the equator including Madagascar, Tahiti, Uganda, Indonesia and Mexico. Below, we’re sharing what we learned about the countries producing vanilla & how this impacts the differences in flavor.
Brush Up On Your Vanilla Facts
- Vanilla is one of the world’s most labor-intensive crops, second only to saffron.
- Vanilla is the only fruit-bearing orchid, but cannot pollinate on its own—every crop must be hand pollinated, or in the case of Mexico, have an indigenous bee to pollinate it.
- The window for pollination is only 12-24 hours, one day a year!
- Vanilla is grown within 10-20 degrees of the equator.
- Similar to how the terroir of a vineyard affects a bottle of wine, the landscape of where vanilla is grown will give each bean a unique flavor.
Although Madagascar produces 75% of the world’s vanilla, Mexico is actually the birthplace of the vanilla orchid, also known as Vanilla planifolia Andrews. For centuries, vanilla could only be found throughout Mexico because of an indigenous bee called the Melipona, which is the only insect to pollinate the orchid flower that produces the fruit. Vanilla was finally introduced to the rest of the world when the pods were brought back to Spain in the late 1700s.
Mexican vanilla has flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and hints of spice—much like the delicious savory food from Mexico! This vanilla is great for fall flavors and pairs well with warmer spices.
In the late 1700s, vanilla was brought from Mexico to the island of Réunion in Madagascar. It took 50 years for vanilla to finally start growing consistently after a botanist realized the indigenous bees of Mexico were the ones pollinating the orchid flowers. After this was discovered, a Malagasy man perfected the method for fertilizing each flower by hand, which is still the method of fertilization today!
Madagascar vanilla is characterized by the familiar flavors that everyone recognizes it for—sweet, creamy and perfect in almost everything (yes, even savory food!)
Similar to Madagascar, Tahiti’s tropical climate is perfect for growing vanilla. In the mid-1800s, after a few years of various vanilla species being imported into the country, Tahitian Vanilla was born—Vanilla Tahitensis. While Madagascar, Mexico and Indonesia all produce the same species, the Tahitian variety are distinctly fruity and larger than other species.
Tahitian vanilla has distinct flavors of floral and fruity notes with a surprising punch of cherry at the end. Tahitian vanilla is great in heat-sensitive dishes.
Uganda is one of the most recent countries to start producing vanilla in the year 1940. While other countries in the world can only harvest vanilla once per year, Ugandan vanilla can be harvested twice per year in December and June or July because of the unique weather.
Ugandan vanilla has flavors of chocolate and is most similar to vanilla from Madagascar. This may be due to the similar processing that the two countries use.
Indonesia produces a product that is most similar to vanilla from Madagascar. This country has become the second largest producer of vanilla, second only to Madagascar. Indonesia focuses on quantity production and harvests all of the beans at once, which saves time and yields a greater crop.
Indonesian vanilla has unique smoky and woody flavors that pair well with chocolate. Indonesian farmers use a different, complicated process for curing their beans. While you usually have to add vanilla in at the end of cooking to prevent the fragile flavors from disappearing, Indonesian beans are great for high-heat cooking.
The next time you reach for vanilla in your spice cabinet, consider using one from a different country depending on the application! The signature characteristics of each can help to bring out different depths of flavor in your cooking.
Nielsen, Beth, and Emily Luchetti. “Vanilla: Anything But Plain.” Pastry Plus. Pastry Plus, 24 Mar. 2019, New York, New York.
Ruggiero, Jocelyn. “The 4 Kinds of Vanilla Beans to Know.” Food & Wine, 23 May 2017, www.foodandwine.com/blogs/4-kinds-vanilla-beans-know.
Spiegel, Alison. “It’s About Time You Knew Exactly Where Vanilla Comes From.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 6 Nov. 2014, www.huffpost.com/entry/vanilla-comes-from_n_5021060.
“Where Does Vanilla Come From? – Nielsen-Massey Vanillas.” Nielsen, 16 June 2018, nielsenmassey.com/where-does-vanilla-come-from/.