About Vanilla

Did you know?
Vanilla is so important to Madagascar's economy that it is even depicted on their highest currency denomination. Their produce is regulated by the Malagasy Government.

Vanilla Crystals

Did you know?
Interesting Fact: This picture portrays natural vanillin crystals. Not to be mistaken with mould. This is the highest quality Vanilla Beans.

Introduction and History

The Aztecs used vanilla to flavour their cacao-based drink xocoatl, or chocolate. Montezuma, the Aztec emperor of Mexico, is said to have served it to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1520. Cortés then introduced cacao and vanilla beans to Europe. It was not until the 1700's that vanilla began to be used in alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and perfumes.

However, long before the advent of the Aztec Empire, the Totonac Indians of Veracruz, Mexico, were growing, harvesting, and curing vanilla beans (as they still do today). It was not until the early 1800's that the vanilla plant was taken to Europe for cultivation and from there to islands of the Indian Ocean. However the bee-like insect that pollinates the flower could not adapt to it's new surroundings, thus producing fruit was unsuccessful. So Mexico had a monopoly on the vanilla trade from the 16th century until the 19th century. In 1841, Edmond Albius, a former slave on the French island of Réunion, started the hand-pollination process of the flowers, after watching his master implementing the technique on other fruits. This spawned the vanilla industry as we know it today. Unfortunately after many attempts from his master to France, Edmond never received the recognition due to him; only early release from slavery. Commercial cultivation of vanilla was now successful outside of Mexico. Today Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla pods. Other countries include Uganda, India, Indonesia, Tahiti and of course Mexico where vanilla originated. There is estimated that there are only a few wild veins left in the forest.

Cultivation of Vanilla

The vanilla bean is the fruit of an orchid. The vanilla orchid is one of only two (the other cardamom) of orchids that produces something edible. It is not easy to tell one vanilla species from another by appearance alone, and perhaps a third of the vanilla family produce fruit which are more of less aromatic. Even so, the specific chemical qualities so sought after in the cured pods of Vanilla Planifolia are not found in any of the other vanilla orchids.

Two other varieties of the vanilla orchid that produce edible vanilla are Vanilla Pompona and Vanilla Tahitensus.

The plant is a climbing vine that must have some type of support and partial shade. In extreme cases, the vein can grow up to 30m tall. Under the right conditions, an established vanilla vine is capable of long life in the wild, perhaps a thousand years.

The vanilla orchid produces waxy greenish-yellow flowers that grow in clusters. Each flower opens only one day a year for a few hours, at which point the delicate task of hand pollination must take place. Only a few flowers from each cluster are pollinated so as not to sap the energy of the plant, which could weaken it and make it prone to disease. The resulting long green pods, or beans, containing diminutive seeds, are harvested by hand from six to nine months later, before they are fully ripe.

The Curing Process

Interestingly, fresh green vanilla beans have no taste or aroma. They must undergo an extensive curing process that results in the release of vanillin with its distinct aroma and flavour. There are three curing methods known today. In Mexico the traditional curing process involved spreading the beans on dark blankets in the sun for an initial killing, called sun wilting. More commonly today, oven wilting is used for the initial dehydration. This however is not desirable. Dipping the beans in boiling water kills the bean, preventing any further photosynthesis and stimulating enzynamic atholosis. The last method of dipping is known as the Bourbon Curing method superior to the other two methods. After wilting has taken place the vanilla is placed in special boxes wrapped in blankets to sweat. Next, the vanilla is alternately sunned and sweated for several days, preventing it from rotting. Afterward, they are deposited in the sweating boxes or in beds covered with waxed paper to dry slowly at ambient temperature for some 45 days. Then they are conditioned for about three months in closed containers to develop their full aroma.

Phew! Exhausting, isn't it!

Taking short cuts and making use of oven drying, as are done in Indonesia today where production has increased dramatically, results in a lower quality bean unsuitable for premium food grade applications. This can however be used in extraction methods, but requiring double the amount of vanilla needed.

The best quality vanilla beans are dark skinned, soft and pliable (although dryness does not influence the flavour).

Natural Vanilla or Artificial?

Vanillin has also been produced synthetically from wood-pulp by-products and coal tar. With so many imitations, at a fraction of the price you my wonder why natural vanilla? As gourmets will attest, there is no substitute for the flavour of true vanilla: The Queen of Spices!