Plain vanilla? That’s plain wrong. This is the fruit of an orchid, such a scarce, labour-intensive product that it is the second-most expensive spice on earth after saffron. Its complex flavour, impossible to tire of, makes vanilla, decade in and decade out, by far the most popular ice cream and gives every kind of food, from chocolate bars to lobster, richness and depth. Its exotic fragrance, redolent of its tropical origins, is used by parfumiers for its allure and by hospitals for its deeply calming effect. Once you know its story, you could never call vanilla plain.
From the Aztecs to Europe
Like chocolate, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla fragrens) is a New World bean. In fact, the Spanish conquistadors discovered both in the same moment, blended into a drink the Aztecs called xocolatl (pronounced “shock- olatl”), the word that gives us “chocolate.” To the Aztecs both cocoa beans and vanilla pods were rare and valuable enough to be used as currency, and their xocolatl was reserved for the nobility.
The drink was soon the rage in Europe, where it was also reserved for the nobility since its imported ingredients made it so costly. Vanilla exportation was in full force by the late 1500s when Spanish chocolate manufacturing factories were established; the spice quickly developed a reputation as both a nerve stimulant and an aphrodisiac.
The word “vanilla” is an Anglicism of the Spanish word “vainilla,” meaning little sheath or little husk. England’s Elizabeth I’s apothecary, Hugh Morgan, is credited for using vanilla as a flavouring in its own right. In one German “study” published in 1762, vanilla scored a 100 percent success rate, curing every one of its 342 impotent subjects. Nowadays it is used by the pharmaceutical industry only as a flavouring.
When European entrepreneurs tried establishing their own plantations in order to break the Mexican monopoly, they hit a brick wall. The vanilla orchid grew readily enough in equatorial colonies such as the French island of Bourbon (later Reunion) or the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia), but for some mysterious reason the vine never produced fruit- the long green pods (also called beans) that are vanilla.
It wasn’t until 1836, more than three centuries after vanilla came to Europe, that the riddle was solved. Charles Morren, a Belgian botanist, realized that a tough membrane separating the flower’s male and female reproductive organs was preventing the orchids from being pollinated. In Mexico, a particular species of bee and a species of hummingbird had evolved the ability to penetrate the membrane.
To produce vanilla elsewhere, the orchids would have to be pollinated by hand, one small, pale green flower at a time. The technique for doing so was discovered five years later by Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave on the French Island of Reunion. With a thin sliver of bamboo, he lifted the membrane out of the way and pressed the flower’s pollen-bearing anther against its stigma with his thumb, and thereby launched the worldwide vanilla industry.
Albius’s method has not changed. On vanilla plantations around the equator workers still pollinate 2,000 flowers a day by hand using le geste d’Edmond. Their window of opportunity is small, since a vanilla orchid that blooms at sunrise will wither and die by sunset if it is not pollinated. (That is why vanilla is hand-pollinated even in Mexico: the bees and hummingbirds miss too many flowers.)
After pollination, vanilla beans spend up to nine months developing on the vine. Then, over a month-long harvest period, workers move through plantations hand-picking ripe pods just as their tips begin to split. When picked, the green, 7- to 12-inch long beans are completely odourless and tasteless. Releasing their characteristic flavour takes months of labour.
First, they are killed by being soaked in hot water. Then, every day for three to four months, they are placed in the sun to dry during the day, then rolled into blankets to “sweat” during the night. For several months after that, they are left to cure in wooden crates. At the end of the process the beans, now nearly black, will have withered to one quarter of their original weight.