All About Vanilla

Vanilla beans and flowerPlain 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.

the vanilla orchid flowerThe Mystery of the Vanilla Orchid

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.)

vanilla beansCuring the Bean

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.

Prior to sale, the beans are graded and bundled in groups of 60 to 100. The final, cured bean has turned a dark brown or black and its length averages from 18 to 20 cm, and has a shrivelled appearance with many longitudinal, ridges and indentations. It’s as flexible as liquorice rope and its surface is covered in givre (glucose and vanillin crystals). When split lengthwise, the spice has a black sticky mass of millions of minute seeds. Its aroma is sweet and fragrant and floral and its flavour is rich and appealing.

Vanilla Varietals

The orchid family, with 20,000 members, is the largest family of flowering plants in the world, but vanilla is its only edible product. There are 150 varieties of vanilla orchid, but only two of them, Bourbon and Tahitian, ore used commercially.

Bourbon is the original vanilla that the Spanish found in Mexico, and most of it is grown in Madagascar and Reunion (which supply three-quarters of the world’s high-quality beans), with smaller contributions from India, Indonesia and China. Mexico is now a minor producer.

Tahitian vanilla is a variety of Bourbon vanilla that has mutated into a separate species. It has a distinctly floral fragrance and its flavour carries licorice, prune and dried cherry notes.

Bourbon/Madagascar Vanilla

The generic term for V.planifolia that’s grown in Indian Ocean islands, “Bourbon,” comes from Ile de Bourbon, (Reunion’s former name) and not from a type of whiskey. Seventy-five per cent of the world’s Bourbon/Madagascar vanilla supply comes from Madagascar and Reunion. Its flavours are rich and balanced and it has a robust aroma. Because it’s the preferred type for extracts, its this flavour most of us think of when we think of vanilla ice cream or cakes. It can be used in both cold and cooked preparations.

Indonesian Vanilla

Because some farmers harvest pods before their phenolic flavour profile has developed, vanilla from this area varies in quality: it can range from deep and full-bodied to light and woody. Some Indonesian farmers also use a short-term curing process that imparts a harsh, smoky flavour. Indonesian vanilla is often blended with synthetic or Bourbon vanilla. It is best used in cooked preparations.

Mexican Vanilla

(V. planifolia, V. fragrans) Its flavour is smooth, creamy and spicy with delicate top notes and its aroma is distinctive, fruity and winy aromas. It can be used in hot dishes, but it is really good in cold preparations or those that need a short cooking time.

West Indian Vanilla

West Indian vanilla is a lower grade than the Bourbon/Madagascar or Mexican beans and has a naturally low vanillin content. Since its taste is too poor for culinary uses, its mostly used to make perfumes. Some extracts using West Indian or Mexican vanilla also use coumarin (derived from the tonka tree, both Canadian and US officials classify it as a toxic substance).

Tahitian Vanilla

(V. tahitensis) Tahitian vanilla is the product of V. planifolia stock that was crossbred with V. pompona (a variety that is normally used in the perfume industry) during the early 1880s. It doesn’t have as much natural vanillin as Bourbon, but flavour comes from heliotropin (anis aldehyde), giving it a sweeter and fruitier taste, reminiscent of cherries or raisins. It has a lovely, sweet floral scent. Even though its pod is fatter than Bourbon vanilla’s, it doesn’t hold as many seeds. It is best used in cooked foods such as sauces, compotes and desserts; it also works well with meats.

jar of vanilla extractVanilla Extract

Vanilla was once available in only one form, the pod itself, but the source of most natural vanilla today is vanilla extract, an amber liquid made by infusing vanilla beans in a mixture of water and alcohol.

High quality extracts carry all the nuances of flavour of the beans that made them, and are just as expensive. Other options include vanilla sugar and powdered vanilla sugar (whole beans that have been very finely ground).

There is, of course, one other type. Synthetic vanilla was developed in Germany in the 1870s in response to the high price of vanilla beans. It contains only one ingredient, vanillin, which was first extracted from coniferin, a compound found in pine trees. Soon after, a method was found to extract vanillin from oil of cloves.

Even Canada has made its contribution: in the 1930s, chemists at an Ontario pulp mill found a way to turn waste sulphite cooking liquor into synthetic vanilla. Not to be outdone, Japanese researchers announced they had manufactured vanillin from cow dung. The researchers admitted it was probably best to use their breakthrough in products such as shampoo and scented candles, since “it would be difficult for people to accept it in food.”

Vanilla essence

Vanilla essence is the distilled or concentrated natural vanilla extract or an artificial facsimile; it is much stronger in flavour than regular extracts.

Natural vanilla powder

This is can be made from several sources, including powdered vanilla extract, mixed with starch and sugars; givre or finely ground dried vanilla beans. Natural vanilla powder can be bought from specialty cake decorating supply shops and gourmet markets. Keep vanilla powder in a dark cupboard, away from heat.

Vanilla Salt

Vanilla salt is a blend of French Fleur de Sel with vanilla bean pieces. It can be used in sweet and savoury dishes. Like all salts, it’s probably best to keep this in a cool, dry place.

A Complicated Flavor

Vanillin is only one of 171 flavouring compounds that have been identified in natural vanilla, which is why synthetic vanilla is only an approximation of the natural bean, with none of its subtleties. In foods where vanilla is a key element — ice cream, for example —the difference is obvious. Even when vanilla is only one of many ingredients, some, to their credit, insist on the real thing — the Coca-Cola Company, for example, which is the world’s largest consumer of vanilla extract. Vanilla is everywhere. It’s essential to custard, crème caramel and peach Melba; it makes chocolate taste less flat.

It is used in more than half of commercially prepared desserts, and many savoury dishes too, from marinades to sauces to cooked vegetables. It’s key to Irish Cream liqueurs, Crème de Cacao, Galliano and a host of vanilla-infused vodkas.

Vanilla absolute, not a vodka but the most concentrated form of natural vanilla (costing $6,000 per kilogram) is the long-lasting base note in perfumes such as Chanel No. 5, Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium and Tresor by Lancôme.

Vanilla flavours cigar and pipe tobacco. And in claustrophobia-inducing MRI machines, the fragrance of vanilla has been found to reduce patients’ anxiety by 63 percent.But natural vanilla is the exception, not the rule. By one estimate, 97 percent of the vanilla used today is artificial, and that number isn’t getting any smaller. In 2000, a hurricane wiped out 15 percent of Madagascar’s vanilla stock, and prices climbed from under $40 a kilogram to $500 per kilogram. The spike caused many manufacturers to switch from natural to synthetic vanilla and although prices have since fallen, many have not switched back. That news won’t sadden many hearts. We’ve become so used to the taste of artificial vanilla that in blind taste tests, many people now prefer it to the real bean. These days, it’s entirely possible that you’ve never experienced real vanilla. In that case, a wonderful discovery awaits.

Using Vanilla

It’s important to remember that vanilla’s flavor resides in two different parts of the bean: the sticky substance in which the seeds are embedded and the pod’s wall. You can scrape out the seeds and use them directly in your cooking, but the pod must be soaked for some time to extract its flavour; soaking the pod in a solution containing alcohol will help you get more of the flavour out. Extracts are best used at the end of cooking since any period of high heat can cause some aroma loss. As such, it’s probably best to use vanilla beans or vanilla powder for dishes requiring long cooking or exposure to high heat.

Vanilla works beautifully with: allspice, crystallized angelica, cardamom, cinnamon, cassia, cloves, ginger, lavender, lemon verbena, lemon myrtle, liquorice, mint, nutmeg, pandan leaf, poppy seeds, sesame seeds and wattle seeds.

You may also be interested in Vanilla Gift Ideas and Vanilla.