(Vanilla planifolia – Family Orchidaceae)
Although called a bean, the vanilla pod is not a legume, but rather a fruit of a climbing plant from the Orchid family. The vanilla pod is thin, round, and several inches long, and the most important of the Vanillas. After harvest, the pods are cured, which still leaves them pliable and a dark chocolate brown. Other vanillas include the following:
V. planifolia is a plant of Central America that grows wild on the fringes of the Mexican tropical forests.
V. tahitensis is a species belonging to Tahiti, but cultivated in Hawaii. It may be descended from V. planifolia, but it has noticeably different characteristics.
V. pompona is a less important species, yielding the West Indian vanilla.
The Spanish first recorded early use of the vanilla bean by the Aztecs. Diaz noted that Montezuma flavoured a cocoa drink (tlilxochitl) with a vanilla pod and that a Franciscan friar, who arrived in Mexico in 1529, saw the spice on sale as an item of Aztec food. During the latter half of the 16th century, Spain imported vanilla beans, while Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Elizabeth I, suggested vanilla as a flavouring, and gave some of the cured beans to a Flemish botanist who described them in his 1605 Exoticorum Libri Decem. The plants were taken to Réunion in 1822 by the French, then to Mauritius in 1827, and to Madagascar about 1840, and since has become one of the most popular flavourings worldwide.
The vanilla plant grows wild on the fringes of their native Mexican tropical forests. It is a vine with thick, fleshy, green stems, and long leathery leaves. Its small greenish flowers open early in the morning and stay open, at the most, for only eight hours. It is thought that they are pollinated exclusively by hummingbirds and milipone bees. Since pollination of the vanilla vine is mysterious and only occurs unaided, it was not until Albius, a former slave of Réunion, developed a practical method of pollination that allowed commercial cultivation to become possible. Madagascar, together with the Comoro Islands and Réunion, now produce 80% of the world output of the variety of V. planifolia, known as Bourbon vanilla.
Vanilla pods take about nine months to mature, but are harvested before fully ripening. They are quickly plunged into hot steam before being left to ferment for up to a month, during which time the distinctive scent and flavour compound, vanillin, is formed. Vanillin is extracted by continuously percolating an ethanol mixture over the chopped, fermented pods. After fermentation, the surface of the fruit will be covered in crystals of glucose and vanillin. The fruits themselves have become black from oxidation, but are still flexible. Long and very slim, they are tied into bundles and packed into tins where they will keep indefinitely, although they may become covered with small crystals of vanillin. This “frosted” vanilla is especially favoured.
The very labour-intensive production, as well as the scarcity relative to demand, has made vanilla the second most expensive flavouring in the world after the spice saffron. Vanillin is now synthesized for commercial use on a large scale, sometimes from wood pulp. It is very unfortunate that today, by law, pure vanilla extract must contain at least 35% alcohol. This “finest” quality has a low sugar content, a rich aroma, an amber colour, and must be kept in a dark place. Pure vanilla extract is always more expensive than the “vanilla flavourings”. However, although synthetic vanillin is chemically “pure” and can be up to twenty times cheaper than the real thing, it lacks that special flavour that is so unique and has, thus far, eluded synthetic reproduction. The first synthetic vanilla was produced by German chemists in 1874 from coniferin, the glucoside found in the sapwood of certain conifers. Synthetic vanillin can also be produced from other sources, including coal tar extracts.