Wandering around the Cancun airport, struggling to find a way to spend my last pesos on some worthy souvenir that would stretch the memories of my time with family in Isla Mujeures, I kept coming face to face with bottles of Mexican vanilla next to the sombreros and colorful rain sticks. While I did not buy any bottles, vanilla would have been the perfect memento for the trip – adding its signature taste and scent to any number of desserts, and its smell would certainly invoke fond memories. Vanilla is one of those spices that can instantly put you in a better mood; it tastes of homemade cooking and its scent is guaranteed to transport you to a better place.
Vanilla is one of the most expensive spices (second only to saffron) due to the extensive labor required to harvest the vanilla seed pods, and the hand pollination. Despite its high cost, no self respecting baker or cook would consider a kitchen complete with out it. Vanilla is cultivated in Madagascar, Comoros Islands, Reunion, French Polynesia, Tahiti, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mozambique, Seychelles, Uganda, Guatemala, and Mexico. Although Mexico is the original source of vanilla, Madagascar now holds the title for the world’s major supplier, contributing roughly 97% of the total production.
Originally cultivated by apparently culinary geniuses, the Totonac people of the Mazatlan Valley in what is today Veracruz, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is credited for introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s. According to Totonac lore, the orchid sprang to being when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded, and where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew.
In the fifteenth century, Aztecs conquered the Totonacs, and quickly developed a taste for the vanilla bean. They named the bean, tlilxochitl “black flower,” after the mature bean, which shrivels and turns black shortly after it is picked. Vanilla is native to Central America and long history use. Both the Mayas and later, the Aztecs used vanilla to flavor a drink made with water, cocoa beans and spices: chacau haa in the Mayan and cacahuatl in the Aztec tongue.
The Mayan chocolate, still consumed in southern Mexico (Yucatán), Guatemala and Belize, is often spicy mixed with chiles and other native (allspice, annatto) or imported (black pepper, cinnamon) spices. The deep red color achieved by addition of annatto was highly esteemed. Sugar or honey may be added, but are not mandatory. The drink is enjoyed hot or cold, with a foam that is considered the best part. We saw wooden “whisks” in the airport, come to think of it that might have been a good souvenir.
Europeans initially used vanilla much the same way, to flavor drinking chocolate, a very popular drink among the 17th century European nobility. European drinking chocolate was almost exclusively sweet and often used many additional flavorings, not settling for just anise, or cinnamon, but adding exotic animal products like musk and ambergris. The main European contribution to the advancement of chocolate was replacing water with milk. This switch led, at the end of the 19th century, to the production of milk chocolate bars.
Growing Vanilla Beans
Flowering normally occurs every spring, and without pollination, the blossom withers and falls away so no vanilla bean develops. Each flower must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of opening. All vanilla grown today is hand pollinated. Generally one flower per raceme opens per day, and therefore the raceme may flower for over 20 days. A healthy vine produces between 50 to 100 beans per year.
Attempts to cultivate the vanilla plant beyond Mexico and Central America were futile due to the symbiotic relationship between the tlilxochitl vine and the native Melipona (abeja de monte or mountain bee). No other bee could figure out the intricacies of what was required. A viable work around was not achied until 1841,when a 12-year-old named of Edmond Albius, who lived on Île Bourbon, discovered the plant could be hand pollinated, allowing global cultivation of the plant.
Vanilla was unknown in the Old World before Columbus. Spanish explorers arriving on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the early 16th century gave vanilla its name, and sent it on its way to Africa and Asia later that century. They called it vainilla, or “little pod”. Vainilla derives from vaina, from the Latin vagina (sheath) to describe the way the pod is split open to expose the seeds. (Would it surprise anyone at this point if I mentioned that vanilla is considered an aphrodisiac?)
Vanilla planifolia – flower
The fruit, a seed capsule, if left on the plant will ripen and open at the end; as it dries, the phenolic compounds crystallize, giving the beans a diamond-dusted appearance which the French call givre. It will then release that distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny, flavorless seeds seen as black specks.
Vanilla grows as a vine, climbing up an existing tree (called a tutor), pole, or other support. Left alone, it will grow as high as possible on the support, with few flowers. Every year, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downwards so that the plant stays at heights accessible by a standing human. This action also greatly stimulates flowering.
Vanilla grows as a vine, climbing up an existing tree (called a tutor), pole, or other support. Left alone, it stops growing only when it runs out of support, with few flowers. Every year, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downwards so that the plant stays at heights accessible to a standing human. This action also greatly stimulates flowering.
Types of Vanilla
Bourbon vanilla or Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla, produced from V. planifolia plants introduced from the Americas, is the term used for vanilla from Indian Ocean islands such as Madagascar, the Comoros, and Réunion, formerly the Île Bourbon, for which it is named. It is also found in Indonesia.
Mexican vanilla, made from the native V. planifolia, is produced in much less quantity and marketed as the vanilla from the land of its origin. Vanilla sold in tourist markets around Mexico may not be pure vanilla extract, but a mix containing an extract of tonka beans which smell and taste similar to vanilla.
Tahitian vanilla is from French Polynesia, made with the V. tahitiensis strain. Genetic analysis shows that this species might be a cultivar from a hybrid-cross of V. planifolia and V. odorata. The species was introduced by French Admiral Hamelin to French Polynesia from the Philippines, where it was introduced from Guatemala. (Guatamala → Philippines → Tahiti)
West Indian vanilla is made from the V. pompona strain grown in the Caribbean, Central and South America.
The Fake Stuff
Most imitation vanillas contain vanillin, one of 171 identified aromatic components of the real vanilla beans. Vanillin is produced synthetically from lignin. Not to gross you out, but most synthetic vanillin is a waste product of the pulp and paper industry. It is made from waste sulfate, which contains lignin-sulfonic acid. The same chemical reaction, by the way, lies behind the vanilla aroma of some wines aged in wood barrels (barrique). Pure vanillin’s scent does resemble vanilla, but lacks the subtle flavor of the true spice, so it is not a good substitute in high-quality products such as good vanilla ice cream.
The food industry uses methyl and ethyl vanillin. Ethyl vanillin is more expensive, but has a stronger note. Cook’s Illustrated ran several taste tests pitting real vanilla against vanillin in baked goods and other applications, and tasters generally could not differentiate the flavor of vanillin from vanilla; except for vanilla ice cream, natural vanilla won out.
The vanilla bean may grow quickly on the vine, but takes about 10 months to mature. Harvesting vanilla beans is as labor intensive as pollinating the blossoms. Immature dark green pods are not harvested. Pale yellow discoloration starting at the distal end of the beans indicates the pod’s maturity. Each bean ripens at its own pace so daily harvest is required. To ensure the finest flavor from every bean, each individual pod must be picked just as it begins to split at the end. If the picker waits too long, the bean looses market value. Vanilla’s value is primarily determined by the length of the pod. Beans more than 15 cm in length belong are first quality products. If the beans are between 10 to 15 cm long pods are under second quality and beans less than 10 cm in length are under third quality. Each bean has copious amounts of seeds inside that are covered by a dark red liquid from which the vanilla essence is extracted. The vanilla beans must be cured before they are processed.
Vanilla – Knowing what you are getting grades
Vanilla’s value is based on the length of the pod. If the bean is more than 15 cm in length it belongs to first quality product. If the beans are between 10 to 15 cm long pods are under second quality and beans less than 10 cm in length are under third quality.
Grade A: 15 cm +, 100–120 beans/pound Also called “Gourmet” or “Prime” Moisture content: 30–35%.
Grade B: 10–15 cm, 140–160 beans per pound Also called “Extract beans”. Moisture content:15–25%. Vanilla extract is normally made from Grade B beans.
Grade C: 10 cm
So there you have it, a bit about vanilla. Not so plain vanilla is it?
Aceite de Vainilla (Vanilla Cordial)
from My Sweet Mexico by Fany Gerson
makes 1 quart
3 dried vanilla beans, split lengthwise
1 ½ c sugar
1 ½ c water
2 ½ c rum or vodka
Chop the vanilla bean into small pieces. Combine the sugar and water in a pot over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves then add in the vanilla. Pour into a large container, stir, add rum or vodka and cover tightly. Store in a cool dry place for about a week. Check the taste after four days to see how you like it. Strain and serve chilled. This drink will last about two months if not consumed first.
Resources and Recipe Ideas:
As to those pesos, I never managed to find the souvenir of choices, so now they’ll be waiting as pocket change for our next trip.