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Why Madagascar is famous for vanilla

19 October 2020 09:11

Vanilla beans grow close to the unique baobab tree

Vanilla beans grow close to the unique baobab tree

Discover more about the island nation's favourite spice.

What's special about Madagascar's vanilla?

Although the vanilla orchid is only native to Mexico, the spice is grown using very different methods in Madagascar. While a rare black bee naturally pollinates the plant in Central America, humans are used for the same process on the island nation. The labour costs and skilled techniques mean that Madagascan vanilla, or bourbon vanilla as it's commonly known, is usually expensive.

When does Madagascar's history with vanilla begin?

It wasn't until 1841 that a 12-year-old slave on Réunion Island, just over 100 miles away from Mauritius, discovered how to hand pollinate vanilla orchids. In the same century the plant was transported in vast quantities to the larger island of Madagascar to the west. The painstaking technique of lifting a membrane between the male and female parts of the flower has been handed down to generations of farmers since.

How important is vanilla to Madagascar today?

Vanilla exports are worth $945m to Madagascar and the nation's 80,000 growers make it the world's largest producer of vanilla beans. Prices for the spice have been riding high for some time now, as the going rate last year was around $420 per kilo of beans, even reaching as much as $600 per kilo in 2018. Demand often outstrips supply as only 1% of the world's vanilla flavouring comes from the plant itself.

Where can I go in Madagascar to find its famous vanilla?

Tourists looking to sample Madagascan vanilla should head north-east on the island. The best quality beans can be found in the towns of Antalaha, Sambava and Vohemar. Tours of plantations on the so-called Vanilla Coast may be hard to come by, but with the help of a hotel or some friendly locals you may be able to arrange a visit to a working farm.

What else is Madagascar known for?

Madagascar is famous for its incredible wildlife. Lemurs are unique to the island and the distinctive primates can be seen by visiting national parks or at hotels built within nature reserves. If you prefer your animals on the larger side, there's always the option to go whale watching along a popular migration route close to Nosy Boraha. And when you're done meeting the local humpback whales, the waves that lap at the shores of incredible beaches are perfect for surfing.

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