Part 2 of 7
Vanilla is the only commercially produced, fruit-bearing orchid that is cultivated for its crop. According to Nathaniel Delafield, co-founder of LAFAZA, “anybody who works with orchids can tell you it’s a blend of science and art. It’s delicate. It’s finicky. It likes what it likes. It has a very intricate set of components that go into producing the product.”
The yearlong cycle starts with the growing environment, which is very important to the quality. The northeast region of Madagascar is ideal with its very dense agro-forestry farming system. Many crops are cultivated together with native trees, hardwoods, and all sorts of medicinal and endemic plants.
“It takes a lot of skill and knowledge to grow vanilla well. The families of farmers who have been working in Madagascar have been growing vanilla for 100 years or more; many generations of farmers have been passing on a lot of community and cultural knowledge around how to take care of vanilla in field, which includes hand-pollinating,” explains Delafield.
“There’s a very intricate process for curing the vanilla, sort of a raisin-ing process,” says Delafield. “At harvest, vanilla looks like a giant green bean, it’s hard, has not scent at all, can snap it right in half. After a long raisin-ing process, where the vanilla beans are sun-cured, day after day, there’s a finishing process where the vanilla is brought indoors to continue curing. The vanilla beans are set on indoor racks, then sorted and further cured in wooded boxes to fully develop the flavor. The entire curing process takes three to four months after the harvest.”
These highly skilled, very finicky processes need to be correct in order to produce a good vanilla bean that has that magical aroma, flavor and appearance of the highest quality and best vanilla on the market.
In our next installment, we will look at the role of hand pollinating thousands of flowers a day, and how this can make or break a growing season.