Vanilla- More Complex and Less “Vanilla” than You Think

Pumpkins and goblins, crisp, cool days and nights, and the kaleidoscopic foliage fandango courtesy of our native sugar maples- yes, the marvels of October in New England are something to behold! And let’s not forget the return of a special number 12 who will finally be slinging the pigskin after his four week “vacation”.

As the weather cools down on the outside, an inverse response from us heats up inside the kitchen- it’s baking season again. A key component to much of the baking repertoire is vanilla extract, an ingredient where only a teaspoon or two can elevate a simple recipe to sublime heights. The story behind the world’s most popular flavor is a fascinating one. Vanilla is a tropical climbing vine that is a member of the orchid family and is indigenous to southeast Mexico.  Its aerial roots enable it to cling to trees or other supports and the vine can climb from 50 to 100 feet. The yellow-green flower, open for only one day, will produce a 6-10 inch green pod if it has been successfully pollinated. This fruit pod of the orchid is referred to as the vanilla bean even though it is not a legume.

The Totanaco Indians of the Veracruz region of southeast Mexico are believed to be the first people to cultivate the vanilla orchid which they called tlilxochitl. They used it mainly as a sacred, ceremonial herb but also utilized it as a medicinal plant and for a fragrant perfume. It wasn’t until the mid-1400’s that the Aztecs, after conquering the Totanacs, began to blend vanilla into their drinking chocolate- thus beginning the culinary odyssey of vanilla. Hernan Cortes, the Spanish explorer, defeated the Aztecs around 1520 and was the first person to bring vanilla beans to Spain and Europe. For the next 300 years, Mexico was the sole supplier of vanilla beans because of the orchid’s dependence on the native Melipona bees for pollination. While hummingbirds and other species of bees were capable of pollinating the vanilla flower, the Melipona bees were by far the primary pollinators.

In the late 1700’s vanilla vines were introduced to the Bourbon Island of Reunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean situated 460 miles east of Madagascar and about 800 miles from the eastern coast of Africa. The vines flourished and flowered abundantly but due to the lack of insects capable of pollinating the vanilla orchid, particularly the Melipona bees, vanilla bean pods were rarely produced. It wasn’t until 1841 that a 12 year old slave, Edmond Albius, developed a technique for manually pollinating the vanilla orchid. His method is still being used today to hand-pollinate each vanilla flower as it blossoms. The term Bourbon vanilla refers to the regions of Madagascar and the Bourbon Islands where the vanilla orchid is cultivated and has nothing to do with the distilled spirits that Kentucky is famous for. Madagascar now produces 60-70% of the world’s vanilla beans.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) due to the intensive treatment the pods must experience before they reach their pinnacle of flavor. The green vanilla pods are harvested at about 9 months and then undergo a lengthy curing and drying process. The pods are initially heated to inhibit fermentation. They are exposed the sun during the day and then stored in wooden boxes at night to sweat. This procedure is repeated every day for 3-6 months until the pods darken, lose most of their moisture content, and develop their characteristic fragrance and flavor profile that is not present in the fresh green pod.

Aside from its culinary wizardry, vanilla is often used as a term to depict something that is boring, conventional or mundane. I find this interesting considering that the vanilla bean features a complex of about 300 compounds that are responsible for its unique bouquet. True vanilla extract contains about 2.5% vanillin, a primary flavor component in real vanilla. Artificial vanilla flavoring is made from vanillin derived from wood pulp by-products of the paper industry or from coal tar and lacks the nuance and complexity of nature’s vanilla bean. Vanilla also has an application in aromatherapy due to its calming, relaxing properties and can be added to tomato sauce to balance the acidity. Leave the wood pulp to the newspapers and the coal tar to patching the driveway and splurge on the real deal. Now I hope you can see that vanilla is anything but “vanilla” after all.