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Real Vanilla Isn't Plain. It Depends On (Dare We Say It) Terroir

Three scoops of vanilla ice cream made with vanilla beans from Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar.
Meredith Rizzo
Three scoops of vanilla ice cream made with vanilla beans from Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar.

Banish the phrase "plain vanilla" from your lexicon.

Why? Because vanilla is one of the most complex spices around, boasting at least 250 different flavor and aroma compounds, only one of which is vanillin, the stuff that can be made artificially in a lab (and is used in a lot of processed foods).

And as we discovered in a round-the-world tasting tour of single-origin vanilla beans — the real stuff — the plant has evolved distinctions in flavor and, dare we say it, terroir, at each stage of its turbulent, globetrotting history.

You've likely heard of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. It's the classic, deep, rich "real" vanilla the world has come to know and love. It helps that Madagascar is the world's biggest producer of vanilla bean, harvesting 1,000 to 1,500 tons per year.

But what about Tahitian vanilla, with its strong notes of cherry, or spicy, nutmeg-y Mexican vanilla? They're pretty amazing, too, thanks to those countries' own rich soils, curing techniques and vanilla-friendly climates.

To compare them, we drafted our colleague Marc Silver, who's always up for a taste test, into service.

The three of us selected beans sold by Nielsen-Massey, an Illinois company that's one of the largest suppliers of pure vanilla in the world, from Tahiti, Mexico and Madagascar, and made three vanilla ice creams with them. We used the same simple recipe and the same ice cream makers to turn out almost identical-looking snowy mounds speckled with black. And then we set them up side by side for an unscientific tasting at NPR headquarters.

In an experiment like this, you're not likely to get much in the way of criticism. Because who doesn't like vanilla ice cream?

But several tasters preferred the exotic cherry and floral — even "smoky marshmallow" — notes in the Tahitian vanilla ice cream. A few sided with the tried-and-true Madagascar, and a couple went for the more subtle, woodsy Mexican variety.

Increasingly, says Craig Nielsen, CEO of Nielsen-Massey, consumers are learning to appreciate these differences, much like coffee. "That's why we label our products by source so that people are aware of what area of the world the product is coming from, the different flavor profiles and how they can be used." (The Nielsen-Massey website offers recipes for inspiration: tropical fruit flan with Tahitian vanilla, and whipped cream with Mexican vanilla, for example.)

Nielsen says he tends to go for Madagascar, if forced to choose. "To me, it's a great, all-purpose vanilla," he says. "I use it in anything," including tomato sauce, salmon marinades and chili. "It's a great enhancer of other flavors, and can bring out sweetness without sugar."

Vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world, but humans find it so intoxicating, we have come to rely on it for everything from ice cream to meat to air fresheners.

"If cacao was the food of the gods, vanilla was definitely the nectar that accompanied it," writes Patricia Rain, a cultural anthropologist, in her book Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Favorite Flavor and Fragrance.

The vanilla bean, along with cacao, originated in the Americas and is now cultivated in several countries around the world. Here, the seeds inside the pod are shown.
Brent Hofacker / iStockphoto
The vanilla bean, along with cacao, originated in the Americas and is now cultivated in several countries around the world. Here, the seeds inside the pod are shown.

The "pure, natural" vanilla spice is really the seeds from dried pods of an orchid whose flowers bloom and die within a day. The vanilla vine originated in the wild jungles of ancient Mexico, growing upward and wrapping itself around stronger plants. It was revered by the Aztecs, but once European explorers had a taste, they realized it had great potential as a commercial spice, and eventually smuggled it to the Bourbon islands around Madagascar for domestication.

Then it took a wild side trip through the Philippines, where it was crossbred with another subspecies in the early 1800s. From there, it landed in Tahiti, where it was further crossbred and became a different species altogether (Vanilla tahitensis Moore), according to Rain. It's since moved into production in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India, says Nielsen, who also buys from those countries.

Orchids are fussy plants that typically do not self-pollinate. And there are only a couple of pollinators that do a good job, which means wild-pollinated vanilla in Mexico was a hit-or-miss proposition.

After much human trial and error in cultivation, vanilla plants are now hand-pollinated, to ensure the kinds of quantities the world demands. In Mexico, the plants are watched over by boys with rocks who shoo pesky chachalaca birds away who would otherwise eat their way through the precious flowers, Rain says.

Then there's the labor-intensive process of cooking, sweating, drying and curing the bean pods. They must be transformed from looking like oversized green beans into the dark brown, wrinkly, oily and shrunken pods with a powerful fragrance. In Mexico, they cure in adobe ovens, while in Madagascar and Tahiti, they cure in the sun, for a few hours a day, for up to six months.

In fact, the progression from pollination to processed bean takes about a year and a half, Rain notes.

Want to read more about growing vanilla? Check out a bean-to-bottle story from Madagascar on our sister blog, Goats and Soda.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to The Salt, NPR's Food Blog.