Spices can give new life to bland, boring foods. Some spices have a savory taste and are used to enhance the flavor of meats or vegetables. Other spices are sweet and act as a crucial ingredient in cakes or desserts. Vanilla, with its delicate flavor, is one of the more widely used spices. The perennial vanilla plant or Vanilla planifolia is a vine which produces orchid flowers and small fruit pods known as beans. The vanilla bean is difficult to harvest, yet spice companies take great care to preserve the spice’s natural flavor and provide a high quality product for consumers.
Though today vanilla can be grown in tropical zones around the world, Mexico and Latin America are believed to be the plant’s place of origin. The Totonac Indians describe vanilla as a gift from the gods. Totonac myth explains that a vanilla vine grew from the spilled blood of murdered lovers who were forbidden to marry. The vanilla’s orchid flower was then viewed as a sign of love within Totonac culture and was used for its sweet fragrance and medicinal purposes.
The first people to dry the pods and use them as a food product were the Aztecs . When Spanish explorer Cortez came to Mexico in 1520 the Aztecs thought he was godlike and presented him with a drink containing vanilla, honey, and cocoa. Cortez is credited for bringing vanilla back to Europe after conquering the Aztecs. The Europeans experimented with the uses of the plant and began incorporating it into chocolate and tobacco as well as using it as a medicine and aphrodisiac .
The Europeans wanted to cultivate vanilla on their own, and so they finally tried plantings in tropical Madagascar. The plants grew and produced flowers, but they did not generate a seed pod. In 1863 a Belgian botanist named Charles Morren realized that the plants were not producing pods because only the melipone bee native to Mexico would pollinate the plant. Orchids are not self pollinators. There is a piece of tissue that separates the male and female parts of the plant. Normally a bee would venture into the flower and would break the piece of tissue therefore causing the flower to be pollinated. Instead this procedure must be compleated with hand pollination which is tricky and laborious.
Hand pollination is still the current method used today outside of Mexico. Nearly sixty percent of all vanilla is grown in the golden triangle region of Madagascar. Other main vanilla growers are Papua New Guinea, Uganda, Indonesia, and Comoros. Because the spice is very valuable and must be shipped by water, it is susceptible to pirating and must be protected by armed guard when traveling.
The labor intensity of vanilla does not stop at hand pollination. The curing process is equally as involved. Curing began in the 1900s and is still practiced today. First the ripe pods are picked and placed in boiling water for three minutes. Then the pods must be sweated by wrapping them in burlap or keeping them in wooden boxes for about three days. Next the pods are sundried for three months by laying out on a piece of burlap during the daytime. Finally the beans go into wax-lined wooden boxes where they become dark brown and develop their full flavor. To procure extractions the pods are finely ground and placed in tanks where they are filtered with water and alcohol at high temperatures for about two days. The extract is then aged for several months.
Imitation vanilla extract comes from chemically synthesized vanillin. It can come from several sources such as clove oil, lignin, wood pulp or coal tar and is much cheaper than pure extract. The process of curing pure vanilla takes a long time but the final product is worth the efforts.
Many say that Thomas Jefferson was the first person to introduce vanilla to the United States after spending time as the ambassador to France. Now the United States is the number one vanilla consumer in the world.