What is it, how does it grow and where does it come from?

Yes, Vanilla the queen of the spices is a cured orchid seed pod. There are about 110 species of the genus Vanilla growing in the tropics and subtropical regions of the world, but only three species are commercially cultivated. Although Vanilla planifolia, the most preferred species for its culinary delights is a native from Mexico, it is Madagascar that is the world’s top producer.(± 1500 tons per year)

Scientific classification:

Kingdom

Plantae

Division

Magnoliophyta

Class

Liliopsida

Order

Asparagales

Family

Orchidaceae

Subfamily

Epidendroideae

Tribe

Vanilleae

Subtribe

Vanillinae

Genus

Vanilla

Specie

Planifolia

Yes, Vanilla the queen of the spices is a cured orchid seed pod. There are about 110 species of the genus Vanilla growing in the tropics and subtropical regions of the world, but only three species are commercially cultivated. Although Vanilla planifolia, the most preferred species for its culinary delights is a native from Mexico, it is Madagascar that is the world’s top producer.(± 1500 tons per year)

A short flight from Antananarivo to Andapa or Sambava in the tropical northeastern part of Madagascar places you in the Vanilla heartland where 55000 farmers are involved in the cultivation of Bourbon type Vanilla. New roads and up market accommodation soon demonstrate that Vanilla is the second most expensive spice topped only by Saffron.

Take the road to the Mohojeje reserve (one of the most beautiful undisturbed tropical mountains) where you will find large and small Vanilla farmers next to the road.

Vanilla planifolia is a climbing vine with a single leathery leaf and some aerial roots for attachment to its host (every ten centimeters). These robust vines can be up to 35meters long and are “folded” up and down over small trees and shrubs to stay at a manageable height of about 1½ meters. Once the plants reach maturity (± 3 m long) they start to flower from late winter to spring.

Vanilla, being an orchid, has hermaphrodite flowers carrying both male (anther) and female (stigma) organs. The flowers are greenish-yellow with a yellow trumpet- like labellum (lip) enclosing the sexual organs. About 20 flowers are born on a raceme , with one flower opening per day in the morning and closing in the afternoon, never to reopen. If the flower has not been pollinated it will be shed the next day. The natural pollinators from Mexico are specific stingless bees and hummingbirds and do not occur in Madagascar.

The part of the Vanilla plant in which the distinctive flavor compounds hide, is the fruit (seedpod) resulting from the pollination of the flower. The only way to produce fruit in Madagascar is through artificial pollination.

Early morning sees farmers inspecting each vine to perform a simple and efficient artificial pollination method on every flower that has opened. This method introduced in 1841 by a slave called Albuis on Réunion involves a wooden needle which is used to fold back the rostellum (flap) separating the anther and the stigma. The anther is pressed against the stigma. The flower is then self-pollinated and will produce a fruit . As this labour intensive process accounts for half the total costs, vines are inspected every day for open flowers and to check if previous pollinations were successful. (You get paid for fruits only)

The “ Vanilla bean “ is an elongate, fleshy seedpod 10-20 cm long containing up to 750000 seeds. It develops over a period of 8 to 9 months after pollination. As soon as they turn golden green at the base , the unripe “Vanilla beans” are harvested. The beans have no aroma at this stage. The curing method used in Madagascar to obtain the characteristic aromatic black Vanilla beans you buy, is called Bourbon, referring to Bourbon Island where the pollination method was perfected.

The Bourbon method involves the beans being blanched in hot water for a short time to stop all natural processes. After being dried of dampness the beans are stored in wooden boxes covered with blankets (“sweated”) for four months after which they get a deep brown colour. The beans are then sorted into two categories :Black gourmet Vanilla or Red Vanilla beans and cuts.( The weight of matured Vanilla at the end of the process is approximately one fourth of the green Vanilla pod at the start when it was picked.) They are left to mature for about 8 months , inspected routinely for rot or dampness until they have acquired the distinctive Vanilla taste.

Etymology:

The word vanilla is derived from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive of vaina meaning “sheath, vagina, pod”. The species name planifolia refers to the flat shape of the leaves.

Origin:

Vanilla planifolia occurs naturally in South East Mexico and Guatemala.

Mythology:
Xanat the daughter of the Mexican fertility goddess fell in love with a Totonac youth. Her divine nature made it impossible to be together so she transformed herself into a plant that would provide pleasure and happiness to her human love and his people.

Chemistry:

There are many compounds present in a vanilla bean , but the predominant compound responsible for the characteristic flavour and smell is vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-metho-xyben 2 aldehyde) Minor components include the essential oil piperonal used in aromatherapy .

Vanilla is commercially sold as whole beans or extract (– liquid made from vanilla beans, alcohol and water – must contain 35% alcohol.)

Remember Vanilla essence comes in two forms: the actual extract of the seedpods and the cheaper synthetic essence, consisting of synthetic vanillin (derived from phenol) in ethanol.

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