|The Drop That Makes The Difference|
Botanical Name: Vanilla planifolia Andrews or vanilla fragrans
Common Name: Vanilla Orchid
Family: Orchidaceae (orchid family)
Climbing, branching, terrestrial orchid growing on trees and shrubs from warm, moist forest in the tropics and subtropics. They have thick, adventitious roots with succulent, jointed, green stems that climb or trail and bear stalk-less or short-stalked, sometimes absent, ovate to oblong, fleshy midgreen leaves, 6 inches long. In spring, bears auxiliary racemes of many yellow-green flowers, ¾ inch across, with yellow-haired lips, followed by pendulous, cylindrical, brown seed pods, 6-10 inches long. Climbs 10 to 80 feet. V. planifolia is cultivated commercially for vanilla flavoring, extracted from its seed pods. Indigenous to Mexico. Minimum temperature 59-64ºF Maximum temperature 86ºF.Hundreds of years ago in the tropical forests of the Aztec kingdom, an ancient people discovered the fruit of a delicate orchid—and a flavor they called vanilla. The Totonaco people of the Vera Cruz region in Mexico were the first to cultivate the divine vanilla crop. They believed the sweet vanilla nectar to be a gift from the gods with a mythology of a pair of fallen lovers whose sacred blood marked the spot where a vigorous vine and a beautiful flower grew to fill the air with the aroma of true love and beauty.
The Aztec monarch, Itzcoatl, conquered the Totonacos in 1427 and immediately came to love the flavor and aroma of the Totonaco’s vanilla. The Aztecs called the prized spice “tlilxochitl “black flower”. They used it to flavor their famous chocolate drink, cacahuatl (chocolate water), made from cocoa beans, ground corn, ground vanilla beans, and honey. The Aztecs required that the Totonaco people grow vanilla as a tribute to the Aztec king, Montezuma.
When Hernán Cortés came to Mexico from Spain, in 1519, he traveled through Vera Cruz where he became intrigued by vanilla. When Cortés and his men arrived in Mexico City, they were graciously greeted by Montezuma who thought Cortés was “Quetzalcóatl” a fair skinned god. Moctezuma served Cortés chocolatll in a golden goblet. Impressed with Moctezuma’s gold and riches, Cortés and his men later conspired to kill the Aztec king, hoping to find more treasures hidden in Montezuma’s palace. Imagine the Spaniards’ disappointment when, instead of chests full of gold, they found bags of cocoa beans.
The Spaniards named their exotic spice “vainilla” meaning “little scabbard” and took it back with them to Spain. Vanilla slowly became popular throughout all of Europe. The French took a particular liking to the flavor and began using it as an ingredient in pastries, cakes and beverages.The French wanted to grow vanilla for themselves in their colonies where the climate was similar to that of Vera Cruz. They were able to grow healthy plants that blossomed, but were never able to get a bean from the plant. When the Totonaco’s got wind of this, they laughed, and called it the “curse of Moctezuma”. For 300 years Mexico maintained its monopoly of vanillabean production despite constant efforts of theEuropeans to induce vanilla vines to bear beans elsewhere in the world. It wasn’t until 1836 when Charles Morren, a French botanist, finally discovered the secret of growing vanilla. His careful examination of the anatomy of the bean led to his discovery of the difficulty of pollination. He then performed the pollination by hand. Thus beans were produced outside of Mexico. Knowledge of theartificial pollination spread to European nations who had colonized tropical regions with climates suitable for growing orchids. These areas began planting vanilla especially the French on the Island of Bourbon (Reunion) and the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).
Vanilla Orchid Cultivation
There is a simple truism about vanilla: the finest vanilla can only come from the finest vanilla beans. It is no mystery that great vanilla is the result of painstaking care. Growing vanilla is extremely labor intensive--a delicate and inevitably expensive operation. Hurrying the process or attempting shortcuts diminishes quality. Only a small portion of the beans grown worldwide is given the care and patience that allows the bean to fully mature, a process critical to obtaining the finest flavor from each individual bean. The vanilla planifolia is a tropical, evergreen, leafy, and somewhat fleshy vine, growing under a canopy of support trees. The plant is sustainable within a 20-degrees band around the equator.
Vanilla vines require three years before they bear fruit. Each spring the plant bears small, pale greenish-yellow orchids. Like most orchids, the blossoms grow along stems branching from the main vine. The buds, growing along the 6 to 10 inch stems, bloom and mature in sequence, each at a different time. Without pollination the blossom wilts and falls, and no vanilla bean can grow. Each flower must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of opening. The only insect capable of pollinating the blossom is the Melipona, a bee, native only to Mexico. All vanilla grown today is pollinated by hand. A small splinter of wood or a grass stem is used to lift the rostellum or flap out of the way so that the overhanging anther can be pressed against the stigma to effect self pollination. On the plantations, girls pollinate hundreds of flowers by hand with their “needles”. A healthy vine should produce about 100 pods per year, however our growers are careful to pollinate only a few of the blossoms on each stem. Over pollination results in diseased and unhealthy inferior beans.
The vanilla bean grows quickly on the vine but is not ready for harvest until maturity- approximately nine months. Harvesting vanilla beans is as labor intensive as pollinating the blossoms. Each bean ripens at its own time, requiring a daily harvest for 3 or 4 weeks. To ensure the finest flavor from every bean, each individual pod must be picked by hand just as it splits. One by one we pick them at the peak of their perfection. It is crucial that the vanilla bean not be harvested until it is yellow on the tip and is beginning to split on the end. If picked too green the bean will lack flavor and develop molds that will eventually cause it to rot. Growers are inclined to pick the vanilla green so that they can cash in on their crop before the “vanilla rustlers” visit their fields at night stealing the beans from their vines.
Growers in Madagascar often brand their beans as a means of theft prevention. The beans are large, tasteless green pods, and must be cured to develop flavor and aroma. The flavor components are bound as glycosides and must be set free by enzymatic reaction. We blanch them in hot water to halt photosynthesis and then spread them in sunlight. For three weeks the beans dry naturally in the sun during the day and sweat in rolled blankets at night. After the sun drying, the beans continue to dry at a slower rate. The entire curing process takes about three months.
During the curing, an enzyme converts the precursors to the rich flavoring elements that make up more than 170 flavoring components of properly grown and cured bean. Four pounds of green beans make only one pound of dried vanilla.The vanilla is completely cured when the proper moisture content is reached, and the beans have darkened to a sweet, rich aroma. The beans are then inspected for quality,hand sorted for length and shipped to our plant in California.
Upon delivery, we thoroughly inspect the vanilla beans for quality, aroma and appearance. After passing stringent inspection, the beans are ready for extracting. We use a slow, cold extraction to obtain the most delicate and rich aroma from the beans. Applying heat or reducing to a concentrate results in a cloudy, inferior extract. Many vanillas on the market are diluted from highly concentrated oleoresins and lack a fine, rich flavor. We use only a direct extraction process and never concentrate our pure vanillas. We chop the vanilla beans into small pieces and then gently percolate them in our specially designed cold percolation equipment. After extraction, our vanilla is carefully tested in our laboratory for quality. With the highest quality assured, the extract is ready for packaging. Package sizes range in size from consumers’ 2or 4 ounce amber glass bottles to 55 gallon drums used by the finest ice cream manufacturers and bakeries.
Vanilla has always been an expensive commodity and many attempts have been made to create substitutes and synthetics. A good synthetic duplicate of real vanilla simply does not exist. Most imitation vanillas contain vanillin, only one of 171 identified aromatic components of the real vanilla beans. Vanillin can be produced synthetically from lignin. Most synthetic vanillin is a byproduct of the pulp and paper industry and is made from waste sulphate which contains lignin-sulfonic acid.
The Truth About Mexican Vanilla
While the quality of vanilla beans from Mexico is considered acceptable, vanilla extracts from Mexico are not. The FDA has cautioned against using vanilla extracts from Mexico because some are adulterated with coumarin (banned as a carcinogen in the U.S.).
Probably the largest source of natural coumarin comes from the Tonka bean, the fruit of a forest tree native to Brazil and British Guiana (Dipteryx odorata), and known in Latin America as Rumera. Coumarin is often used as a substitute for vanilla in perfumery, to disguise the taste of medicines, and also as a substitute for vanilla extract. It has a medicinal component, dicumarol, an anticoagulant used in blood thinning medicines. Dicoumarol is closely related to the chemical warfarin, used in rat poisons as it causes internal hemorrhaging. It is also narcotic and can cause liver and kidney damage or paralyze the heart if used in large doses. The FDA banned coumarin use in major ingredients in the inexpensive "vanillas" or vanillin. Coumarin enhances the flavor which, along with the low cost, makes it appealing to the unsuspecting tourists seeking the famed Mexican vanilla.