Vanilla planifolia (syn. V.fragrans.)
Native to Central America the first recorded use of vanilla was by the Aztecs (in drink made with cacao beans is called Cacahuatl). The Spanish explorer Cortez is credited with introducing vanilla (and chocolate) to Spain in the 1520s. The demand for vanilla spread throughout Europe. Plants grown in any country other than Mexico would only flower. It was not until the 1840s when a method was discovered to hand pollinate the flowers, that countries other than Mexico could grow vanilla pods. Up until then it was only the bees of the Melipona genus, native to Mexico that pollinated the vanilla flowers. Hand pollinating is still used today for all commercial production of vanilla –from Mexico, Tahiti, Madagascar, Réunion, Indonesia and Tonga.
Vanilla is a perennial climbing vine grown from cuttings which require support of trees or poles. It only grows in hot moist tropical climates and prefers shade. (It does not like full sun). The plant has long, leathery, fleshy, oval leaves on stout stems and will grow 30-50 ft (9-15 m). It is kept pruned in commercial operations. The first crop occurs in the third year. Yellow flowers (pictured above) are short lived so there is a small window of viability to hand pollinate. (Flowers open early in the morning). If successful, long aromatic pods form in 5-6 weeks. It takes approx 6 months for pods to mature on vine before harvesting the pods. In commercial productions the pods are then sweated and heated (fermentation curing process) and dried. Once dried, the vanilla beans are conditioned and stored for up to 6 months to develop fragrance then sorted by quality and graded (by size, colour, appearance/feel and moisture content). Vines fruit for up to 10 years. The dried, cured fruit pod is known as the vanilla bean (pictured above). Each bean contains thousands of tiny black vanilla seeds. Vanilla beans will keep for 2 years if stored away from the light in an airtight container.
- Vanilla is the second most expensive herb/spice in the world (after saffron).
- The word Vanilla derives from the Spanish word vaina, meaning “little pod”.
- The flowers have only a slight scent – no element of the vanilla flavour or aroma.
- Vanillin is the major component of the characteristic vanilla smell and flavour but it is just one of between 170-200 identified aromatic components of natural vanilla.
- Historically vanilla is used as an aphrodisiac, tonic for virility and fertility, relieves stress and tiredness; aid to digestion – relieves gastric complaints , treats hysteria, relieves fever and is a nerve stimulant.
- Not widely used medicinally today. Medical research on vanillin the areas of anticarcinogenic, sickle cell anaemia, impotency, anti-depressant, sedative are ongoing and some studies have shown that vanilla has antimicrobial and antioxidant activities.
- Culinary (whole pod, pure extract/essence, powder, and paste – see below), commercial flavouring (e.g. ice cream and soft drinks), cosmetics (especially perfume), tobacco, liqueurs, pharmaceutical (colouring agent)
- Store whole pods in sugar/castor sugar (for at least 2 weeks) before using in desserts and cakes for a vanilla flavour.
- Gently simmer whole beans in liquid (fruit juice/milk /alcohol) – use flavoured liquid in sauces, custards, ice cream and desserts. (can re-use bean if rinsed and dried each time)
- How to make your own vanilla extract: Chop beans finely and infuse in 35% alcohol for 2 weeks, filter out pieces of beans, and use the liquid for flavouring.
- Word of caution: Watch out for artificial vanilla which contains synthetic vanillin produced from paper-pulp by product
- Sprinkle powdered beans over notepaper for an attractive scent.
- Use broken vanilla beans in a culinary potpourri with star anise, cloves, bay leaf, cinnamon, rosemary, dried orange peel and juniper berries.
- To restore lost energy and improve the mind, carry a vanilla bean