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Vanilla qualities

How to differentiate and to establish several levels of quality for vanilla? The most important difference between the two main species of vanilla is that vanilla tahitensis is indehiscent, that is to say that the pod ripens on the creeper without splitting itself open, whereas, on the contrary, vanilla planifolia is characterized by pods which open themselves before complete maturing. 

The pods of vanilla tahitensis are harvested when their color shifts from yellow to brown, and afterwards, they are exposed to direct sunlight intermittently for several months. They are also hand-massaged so that the components inside the pods be gathered at the core of the pods. 

The pods of vanilla planifolia must be harvested when they are still green and the maturing must be obtained by a method called “scalding”: the pods are bathed in 65 degrees hot water for a few minutes, and that thermal “shock” is provoked at a stage, during the development of the pods, when the pods are not quite mature yet, so that that method fixes their state of maturity.

  Green pods
Initially green, the pods then turn yellow and eventually begin to ripen from the bottom of the pod to the top of it, slowly shifting to a light brown hue – or dark brown depending on the varieties of vanilla tahitensis. Moreover, you can notice that the pods do not split themselves open.

Mature pods

Vanilla tahitensis is less concentrated in vanillin than vanilla planifolia (1,3% to 1,8% versus 2% to 2,4%), yet it owns more than a hundred of other flavoring organic components, among them are heliotropin and ethylvanillin, which give vanilla tahitensis its peculiarity. Those numerous aromas, present in infinitesimal quantities, are concentrated and remain in the fatty acids of the pods. This typical feature gives vanilla tahitensis its interest in gastronomy. After preparation, the pods keep only 45% to 55% of their water substance and an oily skin (anise-flavored fatty acids) appears on the pods, which thus become silky, bright and flexible.

There have been several attempts to define and classify the various “qualities” of vanilla pods, which resulted in the existence of different standards, varying from one country to another (see the end of the paragraph).

Those standards come from the main characteristics of the French norms AFNOR, NF ISO 5565-1 and 2, as well as norms implemented in Madagascar and in French Polynesia.  

Elles différentient essentiellement  les vanilles par « l'aspect visuel » des gousses et la teneur en eau. La mesure du taux de vanilline est exprimée en "fourchette" et les autres composants aromatiques sont malheureusement ignorés car ils sont très difficiles à isoler et à quantifier pour leurs « rendus aromatiques et olfactifs ».

They mainly differentiate vanilla pods by their « visual aspect » and by their water proportion. The measure of the vanillin content is expressed by a range and the other aromatic components are unfortunately not taken into account because they are very difficult to isolate and to measure precisely, and the detail of their peculiar aromatic and olfactory effects is not possible to measure.

But, the classification of pods according to the current standards is far from being adequate : one classification for one variety of vanilla planifolia or vanilla tahitensis, that it be A1 or Gourmet or Extra, may have various olfactory effects, before and after the cooking time.  

Besides, vanilla pods, or a huge majority of them, are doomed to be cooked, transformed, mixed up with other food items, vegetables, fruits or spices. The dishes needing to be cooked at various temperatures, or to add at some points vanilla seeds, towards the end of the cooking time or after it, and particularly in sauces, or again the interaction of vanilla with other spices, are factors which may influence the final result and thus widen the range of possible flavors.

Therefore, we have been endeavoring, for about ten years now, to collect and classify vanilla pods according to variety or sub-variety and the “terroir” where they have been produced (an area of plantation). That system of identification and classification can be placed in parallel with the way the “grands crus” of French wines are classified. The follow-up must be very strict, and we have to take into account the fact that vanilla creepers have to be replaced regularly in vanilla plantations, that is to say every five to seven years, and this operation is necessary in order to renew the substratum (composed of plant debris on which the roots of vanilla creepers easily develop). The regular replacement of vanilla creepers helps to create a single flavor of vanilla, that could justify the classification of a production as being a « grand cru ».

Thanks to that method, we can eventually control the olfactory variations of a production, geographically located and delimited.
Covered with frost » effect

Tahitian vanilla Quality Extra (similar to A1)

After a few attempts, you will easily be able to distinguish and enjoy the range of aromatic flavors, richer than just the overwhelming vanillin, in our vanillas aimed at being used in culinary preparations.

As for Tahitian vanillas, you will perceive its peculiar aniseed components, which correspond to “caramel-like” and “aniseed” flavors. Besides, in vanilla pods of the sub-species “Tahiti” or “Tiare”, other components are added that give rather fruity flavors, “prune-like”, flavors that can be found also in varieties such as vanilla planifolia Bourbon from the Indian Ocean (Reunion Island, Madagascar, the Comoros islands, among which Mayotte, and Mauritius).

As for the varieties of vanilla tahitensis from Papua New Guinea, you will be surprised by their « woody » and « smoky » tastes, still much stronger in the vanilla planifolia variety from Ouganda or DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) which infuses your preparations with subtle « woody » and leather-like » notes.

Eventually, the Mexican variety from the region called Papantla, which represents the roots of vanilla, the original one discovered by Spanish “conquistadores” centuries ago, is characterized by “fruity” and “chocolate” flavors, added to a spicy base and of course to vanillin, which is omnipresent. 

                            Mexican vanilla Quality A1
Most of the vanillas commercialized around the world, maybe 95% of the worldwide production, are mixed vanillas, that is to say coming from different production areas, and selected by size and olfactory flavors (limited to vanillin only) and, unfortunately, artificial vanillin is very often added in order to standardize the whole, which will be commercialized with very vague origins such as: vanilla from the islands, vanilla from the Indian Ocean…

Our website Mohea intends to make you discover a new world of subtle fragrances and incomparable aromas !

Quality in accordance with the norm AFNOR, NF ISO 5565-1
The quality of “prepared” vanilla is defined in accordance with the norm AFNOR, NF ISO 5565-1. As for vanilla “pods”, that norm mainly defines categories (1 to 4) based on visuals characteristics (red or black colors, flexible texture or not, mottled pods or not) and sensory perceptions (“typical flavors”). Each category is divided into 2 sub-categories (A and B) depending on the fact that the pods are split open or not. The range of quality goes from A1 (completely black pods, flexible, not mottled and not split), to B4 (completely red pods, dry, mottled and split). The proportion of water is also taken into account, since it can not be above 38% for the categories 1 and 2, above 30% for category 3, and above 25% for category 4. The vanillin content goes from 1,6% to 2,4%.

Quality of Tahitian vanilla.
Extra (pods longer or equal to 16cm)
Première (pods smaller than 16cm)
As for Tahitian vanilla (vanilla tahitensis), the moisture content is close to 50% (more or less 5%). The vanillin content goes 1,1% to 1,38%.

During the preparation, the pods of Tahitian vanilla lose a little bit of water (which allows a better preservation), and aromas develop and become more and more concentrated. The moisture content thus drops from 80% to 45-55%. At that moment, an oily skin appears on the pods. They become flexible and bright, which is typical of Tahitian vanilla.

Quality of vanilla from Madagascar

Vanilla from Madagascar « Extra » not split-ENF.
Complete pods, not split, flexible and sound, with good flavors, characterized by a homogenous dark brown or chocolate brown color, may be slightly mottled, but on a third of the pod at most, with a maximal water content of 38%, and a minimal length of 14 cm.
Vanilla from Madgascar Extra Split-EF.
The pods are similar to those from Madagascar Extra not split, the only difference is that those ones are split.
Vanilla from Madagascar “Prima” Not Split-PNF.
Complete pods, not split, sound and with good flavors, characterized by a dark brown or chocolate brown color, may be slightly mottled, with a minimal length of 13 cm, and a maximal water content of 36%.

Vanilla from Madagascar Prima Split-PF.
Same features than those describes previously, but they are split.
Vanilla from Madagascar “Superior” Not Split-SNF.
Complete pods, not split, with good flavors, flexible or dry, may by mottled ; may have a few red stripes, characterized by a minimal water content of 30%, and a minimal length of 13 cm.
Vanilla from Madagascar Superior Split-SF.
Same features than those describes previously, but they are split.
Vanilla from Madagascar “Common” Not Split-CNF.
Complete pods not split, but sound, dry, with good flavors, may be mottled, with a typical russet color, a minimal water content of 25% and a minimal length of 13 cm. Vanilla from Madagascar “Common” Split-CF. Same features than those detailed for the « common » vanilla not-split, but those ones are split.

Other norms
Quality Black Gourmet :
High quality vanilla, for fine gastronomy, moisture content 30-35%, vanillin content 1,8% to 2,5%.
Quality Extraction grade 1 US:
12-20 cm split or not, brown or red, moisture content 18-22%, vanillin content 1,6 to 2%.
Quality Extraction grade 1 Europe:
12-20 cm split or not, brown or red, moisture content 24-26%, vanillin content 1,2 to 2,2%.
Quality Short grade 2:
10-11 cm split or not, moisture content 16-20%, vanillin content 1 to 1,5%.

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