Madagascar produces around 80% of the world’s vanilla. So what causes public executions and horrible lynchings, and what does a twelve-year-old enslaved person do with them?
The Eighth Continent’s Blessings and Curses
For most of us, Madagascar is, first and foremost, about Alex, Marty, and Melman. The wilds of this tropical island nation far away from their home are discovered for the first time by New York zoo animals in the cult 2005 animated film. They discovered breathtaking nature, rare species, and a plethora of adventures on this magical “eighth continent,” as Madagascar is also known due to its distinct microclimate. Surprisingly, the reality isn’t all that different – just a little crueler. This is especially true regarding one of the most critical sectors on this Indian Ocean island: vanilla cultivation. Vanilla blooms are required for manual pollination. Madagascar is known worldwide as a vanilla paradise due to its beautiful terrain and warm temperature.
Real bourbon vanilla pods fresh, hand-picked and packed on site. The scent of these vanilla pods is unique: intense, harmonious and balanced. This fragrance is like no other and harmoniously combines almost 200 natural individual substances into a fine, enchanting composition. It’s not for nothing that vanilla is called the “queen of spices” and bourbon vanilla is the crowning glory among vanilla varieties.
“Madagascar is without a doubt the most famous vanilla-producing country because of this environment,” says Josef Zotter, the creator of a chocolate business that debuted in Riegersburg, southeast Styria, in 1999. As a result, Zotter has established himself as one of the most illustrious members of his trade, thanks not only to his one-of-a-kind chocolate masterpieces but also to his use of fair-trade raw ingredients.
Because Madagascar is also known as a cocoa bean paradise, Josef Zotter is familiar with this beautiful and productive part of the world in a way that just a few Austrians are. He is probably only surpassed among Europeans by a few French pensioners living their golden years in this former colony.
Zotter, on the other hand, goes a little deeper. During this time, he has witnessed firsthand the horrific, almost archaic atrocities surrounding the vanilla industry. Why is there so much wrong with the production of these savory beans? How much blood has stained this wonderful vanilla flavor? And how does all of this convert into flavor?
The Brilliant enslaved person
First and foremost, Madagascar grows vanilla “spice,” often known as natural vanilla or Bourbon vanilla. Île de Bourbon, located just a few miles southwest of Madagascar and named after the French royal family Bourbon, has been known as Île de la Réunion since the mid-nineteenth century. The proud plant, however, has kept its name.
This is mainly due to the pioneering feat of a twelve-year-old enslaved person who, in 1841, brought about an agricultural revolution in that country. Indeed, thanks to Edmond Albius, vanilla is now grown outside of its native Mexico. Only native species of bees and hummingbirds could pollinate the vanilla plant, giving today’s Mexico a natural vanilla monopoly that lasted for millennia.
With them, broad cultivation in other areas is possible. Albius, on the other hand, created a unique way of pollination in La Réunion by using a slender stick or a stout blade of grass to lift the flap between the anther and the stigma before rubbing the anther pollen over the stigma with his thumb. As a result, the Mexicans lost their grasp on their vanilla monopoly due to Albius’ pioneering dexterity. In contrast, vanilla output in La Réunion and Madagascar rose to several tons within a few years.
Bourbon vanilla currently accounts for more than 90% of global vanilla production. Eighty percent of this total is farmed and processed in Madagascar, where the vanilla plant is still pollinated by hand. But, when the economy improved, thanks in part to vanilla, issues arose.
There are more thieves than farmers.
“A vanilla bean is not just a vanilla bean,” Zotter explains. Ugandan vanilla, for example, is less intense and has a “reduced vanilla concentration,” according to Zotter. “You can correctly measure this and use it to compute pricing per kilo.” Madagascan vanilla used to cost up to 700 euros per kilo; today’s price is roughly 400 euros. After saffron, vanilla is the most expensive spice in the world.
Because Madagascar possesses the wealthiest and most potent vanilla due to terroir and being an impoverished country, brutal fights are fought over this priceless raw resource.
“It’s awful,” Zotter recalls. “Every few feet, an armed vanilla farmer looms around the property. You can’t see him, but you can feel him. He’s exhausted and worn out and doesn’t think twice about pulling out his revolver. Because a gun shoots faster than we can pose a question, we scarcely dare to touch the plants. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black; any rustling sound or step might be lethal – even for us.”
The more disastrous the harvesting weather is, the more bloodthirsty the field events will be. As a result, Madagascar sometimes has more vanilla thieves than vanilla producers. Unfortunately, official statistics on vanilla deaths, which include farmers shot by robbers, do not exist.
You Don’t Like Blood
“Vanilla is cultivated in Madagascar in the same way that tomatoes are in our latitudes,” Zotter adds. “This implies that the vanilla plants or fields are always close to the house, where they may also be protected.” On the one hand, the crux is harvest season. The plant must be ripe, and it is practically impossible to become overripe. The harvest season typically begins in July.
Vanilla is typically stolen when it is still unripe, so farmers wait for harvest – with or without a gun – on pins and needles. Most then transport their produce to fermentation centers, some of which are run by the Vanilla cooperative Mananara. This organic and fair trade cooperative processes the vanilla of over 600 vanilla farmers from more than 70 towns.
“This vanilla fermentation and drying process are extensive; in fact, that’s where most of the work is done,” Zotter explains. Of course, some farmers process their vanilla. However, a large customer like Josef Zotter needs both qualitative and quantitative requirements. “After the vanilla is harvested, the farmers bring the green pods to the center. Mananara checks to ensure nothing is decaying at this time, so there is some basic quality control.”
Unfermented vanilla beans are approximately 12 inches long and taste green and unpleasant. Vanillin, the classic vanilla flavor, can only be produced through fermentation. The green pods are blanched first, either with hot steam or by immersing them in hot water.
They are then fermented warm and moist in rice bags for about a month. The pods, previously green, turn reddish-brown and shrivel up into an oily stick at this point. The aroma arises during the subsequent drying process, which takes two to three months. “During this process, the pods must be constantly turned over,” Zotter explains.
In addition, at Mananara, 20 personnel are in charge of the entire processing. “They ensure that the temperature is appropriate and that no insects harm the items.” Each producer maintains their specific fermenting procedure a secret; nonetheless, in the last step, the pods are constantly placed in full sun and shade and are occasionally covered in parchment paper to do so.
It may also take up to three months to complete the process. This turns the pods black, revealing their fully developed, recognizable sweet scent. Another sophisticated procedure is grinding the pods in special mills so that customers like Zotter receive their product dried, powdered, and vacuum-packed.
“Of course, when a product costs 400 euros a kilo, it opens the door to all kinds of tricks,” the chocolatier knows. Although Mananara is dependable, it is common for certain producers to cut corners on the product. “We have our in-house laboratory where we verify each delivery for vanilla content,” Zotter assured us. However, the blood that stains the vanilla beans does not taste nice.
As a result, Madagascar’s vanilla industry exemplifies the constraints of fair trade like no other product. In other words, fair trade does not necessarily imply well-made products.