Attracting thousands of tourists every year, Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world. It is also known as the red island, because of its warm colour seen from the sky. Red but not monochrome. Indeed, Madagascar abounds in landscapes as varied as fabulous. It is conducive to adventures, whether terrestrial or nautical. Finally, the island is the world’s leading producer of vanilla.
(Malagasy red soil, Madagascar ©pixabay)
This country is attractive for its atypical water sports, and also famous for its vanilla. Moreover, It is a world leader in vanilla exports.
This two-century-old production is the result of a unique know-how and culture. Let’s go back to childhood to discover the mystery of Madagascan vanilla.
(Vanilla flower, Madagascar, ©Festiv)
For this, we went to meet Jacky Jayat, head of the sustainable agency Festiv. He guided us on a tour combining commitment and the hidden secrets of vanilla. From the plantation to its sublimation on the plate, what is behind this orchid like no other?
Festiv is above all the story of its manager Jacky Jayat. In love with Madagascar, he was able to give it a real vision. The vision of discovering the deepest part of the country. The vision of including the populations in the process of transmission and preservation.
It is through excursions that Jacky’s attachment to the Red Island is born. The variety of landscapes, from the sea to the unique green valleys, won him over. And his encounter with the humpback whales finally convinced him that he belongs there!
By creating Festiv, he wanted to set up a Malagasy tourist agency offering specialised tours. Its specificity lies in its tailor-made formulas and the appeal to the senses that each trip offers alongside local products.
These are notably focused on traditional Malagasy knowledge. But also on the discovery of the methods of culture, harvests and transformations. We are interested in the cultivation of seaweed in the bay of Diego and the harvesting of Baobab vegetable oil. He also tells us the secrets of the extraction of Ylang Ylang in Nosy Be.
“The tourism offer is unlimited in Madagascar”.
To accomplish this, Festiv is supported by two associations. The first, Les Drôles de Dames, is a Malagasy association, exclusively composed of women. This organisation aims to encourage, develop and promote cultural, educational and social actions. They are part of a national action “naturally feminine”. The association aims to facilitate the accession of women to positions of responsibility in the agricultural sector.
Finally, Festiv is also supported by VALAMADA, a French association. It carries out solidarity and sustainable operations to support producers of vegetable raw materials in Madagascar.
“Festiv is not about 40 tourists on a bus. It’s special, specific programmes. I accompany all my groups. I will take them to places where no one else will take them. But there is one condition: the exchange. The exchange between the tourist who has to bring something to the locals. Then, he in turn can get something out of it. That’s what responsibility is, responsibility towards the women and men of Madagascar”.
Very early on, Jacky, creator of Festiv, wanted to integrate human and ethical values into his organised trips. A few essential ingredients make up his philosophy: wonder, benevolence and recognition.
Sensitive to this attachment to the red island, we left with Jacky to meet an emblematic heritage wonder in Madagascar: the Malagasy vanilla.
In Madagascar, you will be amazed by the biodiversity, the unique topography and the inhabitants of this island. These people have managed to protect their environment and their know-how.
Therefore, Festiv wishes to adopt and transmit these two aspects of the Malagasy wonder. Through the discoveries about vanilla, a large part of the country’s history is revealed. In this sense, an ethical and sustainable circuit from the plantation to the plate was born. It is a fully immersive experience.
The vanilla route is the one used by Festiv to propose an experience. This world-famous production allows us to discover the biological miracle that is vanilla and the patience of the planters. But also to reflect a culture, the treasures of transmission from mother to daughter.
The itinerary is as follows: the first day to visit the plantation of the Ambohimanitra estate. During this first day, you will marvel at this sublime and vast plantation. The plantation has opened several lodges within the domain in 2019. After a good night’s sleep, it’s time to learn. You will be offered a cooking workshop with the renowned chef Johary.
Finally, on the third day, you will go to the processing workshops, the last stage in the sublimation of this orchid.
The immersion is complete !
This tour reflects the complete cycle of vanilla processing and highlights all of its artisans in Madagascar. It is a real escape into the heart of rural Madagascar.
First of all, in order to understand the secrets of vanilla in Malagasy culture, it is important to immerse oneself in the life of the planters.
At the Ambohimanitra estate plantation, there are many secrets. This plantation, nearly 25 years old, is specialized in the production of this orchid. On the plantation, several varieties of vanilla are offered. These include the Mexican, the Pompona and the Planifolia. The latter, also called “Fragrance Ordinaire”, is the most widely cultivated variety.
Vanilla has been produced in Madagascar since the 19th century. Today it is mostly exported (95%) but supports up to 100,000 families. Historically, vanilla is a medium that employs many Malagasy and is culturally important. Beyond the export market, it symbolises childhood and maternal dishes, passed down from generation to generation.
Its production is based on a know-how that could be described as endemic to Madagascar.
Let’s take for example the “marieuses”. Vanilla is a delicate orchid, which cannot reproduce itself without outside intervention. And Madagascar does not have bees pollinating vanilla flowers. They have to be pollinated manually on the island. The “marieuses” have been working in this way for almost two centuries. This know-how is essentially shared by Malagasy women, whose textures allow the fertilisation of the plants.
(“Marieuse” fertilizing a flower on a vanilla vine, Domaine d’Ambohimanitra, ©Festiv)
Fertilisation is just one of the many steps required to produce vanilla. This plant requires patience and passion. Indeed, from planting to final production, it takes three years. For a year and a half, the farmers maintain the vines on which the flowers grow. Each vine requires special attention.
Then comes the period of fertilisation and the “marieuses”. This work is tedious. Each flower of each vine must be fertilised, as they do not open at the same time. It is therefore necessary to go back and forth several times for the same vine.
In order to obtain the 1700 tons of vanilla produced by Madagascar, more than 40 million flowers must be fertilised. Each one by hand!
Finally, it is necessary to monitor the evolution of each vine for 18 months. It is after various stages that we will finally obtain the finished product. The vanilla will be scalded and steamed. This is followed by sun-drying, grading, refining and measuring.
(Drying of vanilla beans, Domaine d’Ambohimanitra, Madagascar, ©Festiv)
(Final processing of vanilla beans, Domaine d’Ambohimanitra, Madagascar, ©Festiv)
This orchid likes to be pampered with long and special attention. This attention is unsuspected when the product of its pod arrives on the plate.
Then, the journey continues with the stimulation of the taste which allows to reveal the vanilla in all its splendour. Meeting Chef Johary Mahaleo at the Café du Musée, the aim here is to learn how to appreciate and sublimate this flower on the plate. With Madagascar chocolate, vanilla has become the signature of his dishes. The mixtures are subtle and the cuisine is marked by taste. But how to succeed in marrying all the flavours?
This chef will transmit to you all the attachment he has for this Madagascan flower. A little Proust’s madeleine, it reminds a good number of Malagasy people of their childhood, and of the sweets they used to eat.
“My fondness for vanilla simply comes from my mother when she used to entertain her guests, she likes to cook with vanilla. Vanilla apple pie. Vanilla floating island. Vanilla chicken.”
It is actually quite rare to use vanilla in dishes in Madagascar today. The export and price of vanilla has made it very difficult for the Malagasy to obtain this orchid.
Chef Johary therefore wishes to keep these traditions alive through these various vanilla dishes. In addition to being tasty, vanilla is known for its stimulating properties for the digestive system. This gives it a real added value.
After the tasting, share your meal with the locals and the plantation workers. This meal will be a double learning moment.
Thanks to vanilla, you can now improve your cold desserts and starters with this exotic touch. It also perfumes your hot dishes with a scent that will envelop the whole room.
Finally, through the cultural attachment of the Malagasy to vanilla, you will get even closer to the local culture.
Vanilla is a plant of passion and patience. This orchid is one of the symbols of the red island. It is first of all a symbol of economic and commercial success. It provides a living for many of the island’s inhabitants.
Vanilla also represents a unique ecological and cultural heritage. By its very nature, it is fragile, but beautiful, not very nutritious, but it feeds Madagascar in part through its trade.
Finally, the production of vanilla is inalienable to the know-how and human culture of the red island. The vanilla bean does not exist in its natural state. It is through the passionate work of men and women that this fruit of passion and patience is obtained.
To learn more about vanilla, we invite you to participate in the tour organised by FESTIV.
The doors of the vanilla plantation on the estate also await you with open arms.
If you are eager to discover the Malagasy orchid, you should know that Madagascar will soon reopen its doors. From November 6th!