Madagascar’s Vanilla: The ‘Gold Standard' from Farming to Flavor

By Meghan Gieber | April 13, 2015
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cured vanilla
Courtesy of LAFAZA

The team at Edible Silicon Valley was happy to stumble onto Oakland-based LAFAZA vanilla at the Fancy Food Show earlier this year. From its farming methods to its flavor, this vanilla tells quite a story.

When Nathaniel Delafield and Sarah Osterhoudt (two of LAFAZA’s three founders) worked in eastern Madagascar as Peace Corps volunteers in 2005, side by side with the farmers in the dense forests of the Mananara Region, they quickly learned how unique and delicious the vanilla was. So inspired by the vanilla, and the warmth, hospitality and sustainable farming practices of the Malagasy, Delafield and Osterhoudt teamed up with brother, James Delafield to create LAFAZA and have been connecting Malagasy farmers to US markets and spreading the word ever since.

The LAFAZA team is committed to working with independent farmers using sustainable practices, which is needed to protect the unique rainforest biodiversity in and around Madagascar. According to Dan Pargee, US business coordinator for LAFAZA, “These farmers utilize dense agroforestry systems that act much more like a healthy forest than like an industrial farm. They do not introduce potentially harmful materials into the soil, water or air. By planting a range of different food crops on their land while conserving the native species of trees and bushes, they help support a habitat in which multiple endemic species of lemurs, birds, reptiles and insects can flourish.” This approach yields vanilla products with a deeply complex flavor and has a positive impact on both the forests and the farming communities.

“At LAFAZA, we think of the spice trade in Madagascar a little differently,” says Pargee. “We partner directly with small farmers via their cooperatives to produce and export some of the country’s highest-quality natural vanilla. This direct-trade model allows us to pay farmers a premium price for exceptional vanilla beans, and still provide competitive prices for our customers.”

LAFAZA also invests in their farmers’ cooperatives, and helps build libraries and community centers in the rural forest communities where the vanilla comes from. This commitment along with direct market access to consumers of gourmet ingredients around the world has helped to advance these communities financially and towards more sustainable economic growth.

All of that and the vanilla tastes great too. “What is truly distinctive about Madagascar vanilla is its depth and complexity. It can hold its own as a single flavor, but it also has the ability to highlight the best qualities of other ingredients or flavors in a recipe,” says Pargee.

We have a newfound appreciation for Madagascar’s vanilla roots and can attest that LAFAZA is doing its part to provide some of the best tasting vanilla to the world in a sustainable way that also boosts international economies.

Vanilla Harvest to Production

Vanilla is a vine that is planted in shallow soil and trained to grow approximately 1.5 meters high before looping around a live tutor tree branch and returning to the soil to re-root. Vines produce flowers once per year and one flower will bloom every 2-4 days. Flowers are pollinated by hand using an orange tree thorn. Vanilla flowers have a very short life cycle, and each must be pollinated within 24 hours after it blooms. When pollinated correctly, one flower will produce one vanilla bean that grows to maturity in 7-9 months.

The curing process must be started within seven days of harvest to preserve quality and avoid early decomposition. Beans are first blanched in hot water and sweated in insulated bins for 48 hours to stop the internal growth process in the bean. Afterward, the vanilla beans are brought out to cure in the sun, and are then wrapped tightly overnight to continue the sweating process. Over a 3-4 month period of daily attention, the beans slowly become fragrant and turn a deep chocolate brown color. Curers examine individual vanilla beans to determine when the outdoor process is finished. The cured beans are then brought inside to sit for another 2-3 weeks on open-air racks to complete the process. Finished vanilla beans are sorted and bundled by size, appearance and fragrance quality.

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