These vanilla beans come fresh from the farm (because I buy direct and fair trade) and are glossy, pliable, and immensely flavorful and fragrant. The farm has been growing organically for over ten years, but due to the small size of their operation and the prohibitive cost of certification, they are not legally certified organic. They use no chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides in the production of their vanilla. Everything–from fertilization to pest control–is done naturally with plants and animal products.
Yes, the beans are actually fair trade, and the term is not like “organic” where there is a legal definition where you can and cannot use it. They are fair trade because we pay the farmer’s asking price for them and don’t haggle or negotiate that. As for the organic issue, since he’s not certified (very long and expensive process for a small family farmer), we call them “organically grown.”
The safest term would be “planifolia” or “bourbon” vanilla beans, since they are of the species Vanilla planifolia, which is sometimes offhandedly referred to as Madagascar vanilla.
The premium-grade beans’ caviar can have a little texture. The ultra-premiums’ caviar doesn’t have any texture, and have a better-developed flavor and aroma. The luxury really are the best of the best.
The texture of the caviar is finer and the flavor is better developed in the upper grades. (And don’t forget, you can save all your empty pods for making vanilla extract! Nothing has to go to waste with these beans!)
Absolutely, unequivocally, the Indonesian beans are the best. They are the ones that come from the farmer with whom we have a fair-trade agreement and who grows completely organically and has for over a decade.
Our luxury, ultra-premium, and premium vanilla beans are all Indonesian vanilla beans. With each increasing level of quality, the vanilla flavor is more refined and developed, and the size and plumpness increases dramatically (some of our luxury beans are almost 1/4″ wide). They impart a buttery and smooth vanilla flavor and aroma. It is the “true” vanilla flavor and aroma that most of us think of. The Indonesian beans enhance the creaminess and smoothness of desserts without any added fat. They make each dish I have added them to taste more decadent, and that has included meringue puffs, creme brulee, flan, bread pudding, French toast, cream cheese and regular icing, cakes and cupcakes, and whipped cream.
The Indonesian beans are mellow, creamy, deep, and rich; while the Tahitian beans are light and fruity; and the PNG beans are potent and fruity, and larger than the Tahitian beans. I recommend rum for making extract from the Indonesian beans, and vodka for making extract from the other two.
“Bourbon” actually refers to a whole species of vanilla beans, and it is considered the best and most prized. The species is Vanilla planifolia. Tahitian vanilla beans, for instance, are Vanilla tahitensis.
There are flavor differences between the three grades, interestingly enough, though the primary difference between the three grades is the amount of caviar–the ultra-premium (long) beans have about double the caviar the premium (medium) beans do, and the luxury (extra-long) beans have about triple the caviar of the premium beans.
The flavor differences, I would describe this way: Java vanilla has a deep, rich, and buttery vanilla flavor and aroma. I think it is the truest of the vanilla flavors, Tahitian beans tend to be a bit weaker in flavor (different species, with lower vanillin content) and Madagascar beans can actually be kind of sharp and pushy!
That said, the premium beans, being the smallest, have the least-developed Java vanilla flavor and are best for vanilla extract, a process which steeps every last bit of flavor from them. They are also nice for dishes where they’ll be a complement to the flavor profile rather than the central flavor. The ultra-premium beans are great for vanilla-centric items, as their flavor is fairly bold and pronounced, and the texture of the caviar smooth. I tend to use those in everyday vanilla foods and desserts like vanilla bean French toast, vanilla bean bread pudding, vanilla bean crepes, and vanilla bean scones. The luxury beans come in for treats where the vanilla flavor really needs to be showcased and shine, such as vanilla bean panna cotta, creme brulee, mousses, and the like. The Luxury beans possess the best-developed Java vanilla qualities, adding richness to a food item while also distinctly flavoring it with that exotic, ambrosial taste unique to this island’s premium agricultural products.
The following pictures are of our farmer processing the vanilla beans.