Vanilla is not only used to sweeten desserts and ice cream. It is one of the most expensive spices in the world, as well as being quite a diva. The story of a conquest that didn’t shy away from tricks and deceit.
Vanilla is an orchid and orchids are called the “queens of the flowers.” So, it should come as a surprise that vanilla is also the “queen of the spices” for many cooks. As it is proper for royalty, the plant is somewhat peculiar and distant. In its home country of Mexico, only certain colibri species and the Melipona bee are allowed to approach. A membrane separates pollen from pistils to prevent pollination. Colibri, however, are able to prise open the membrane with their pointed beaks and the Melipona and Eulaema bees are so tiny that they can enter deeply enough into the flower in order to pollenate it. As is the case with so many secrets of nature, it was only uncovered by accident.
In 1836, the Belgian botanist Charles Morren was sitting on a veranda in Mexico’s Papantla drinking a coffee when he observed how darkly coloured bees crawled into the flowers of a climbing plant growing near him and came out again with pollen attached to their little legs. Only a few days later, small pods began to grow. Morren tried later to pollinate the flowers by hand with little success. A few years later, 12-year-old Edmond Albius was more successful. On the Île Bourbon, today called La Réunion, he worked as a slave on a farm and was able to artificially pollinate the flower successfully with the thorn of a cactus. The ground was laid for the world-wide career of the vanilla plant.
Even today, more than 150 years later, farmers pollinate the plants on their plantations with the help of bamboo and orange tree branches, quite without the assistance of insects and birds.
Rub for more eroticism
This occurred only around 400 years after the Aztecs used vanilla not only as a spice but also to treat their teeth and general medicine. They believed the bean has magic powers and can enhance erotic attraction. That is why many used vanilla to rub on their bodies and promised themselves the increase of their seductive skills.
When the Spanish robbed the Aztecs of all their riches at the beginning of the 16th century, they also brought vanilla as a trophy onto the old continent. The spice was used to sweeten hot chocolate that had just come into fashion among the nobility and at court. It took around 300 years until vanilla became a mass product and is today produced on La Réunion, in Indonesia, on the Comoros, on Tahiti, and, of course, in Madagascar. The island in the Indian Ocean at the south coast of Africa produces almost 80 percent of all vanilla sold worldwide, for the soil and moist-warm climate of the country are made for the orchid. The plant is often grown together with sugar cane or cacao trees, on which it can climb upwards.
A long way to the full aroma
If the pollination can be called elaborate, the month-long maturation after the harvest demonstrates how long it takes until the vanilla’s whole glorious scent is released. Five years can pass until a new plant first carries fruit. Farmers have to look closely, for the longish, around 30-centimetre-long beans are still green even when they are ripe. Nobody would find their taste seductive at this point. They taste grassy and bitter.
The enchanting scent can only develop through fermentation. For this process to get started, the beans have to be blanched in hot water first. Then, they are dried in full heat and are then sweated, wrapped in blankets or rice sacks. The alternation between sun and shade can take months. Slowly, the beans change their colour from green to rusty brown and black and take on their beautiful oily shine. This is how the bean develops its characteristic aroma vanillin and, in the process, loses a lot of weight. Six kilogram of once green beans turns into just one kilogram gourmet vanilla. The most expensive kinds can cost up to 1000 euro per kilogram.
In light of this long procedure and horrendous price it is hardly surprising that the industry soon began to recreate the real vanilla synthetically. In 1874, the German chemist Wilhelm Haarman extracted the substance coniferin from evergreen conifers and was able to produce vanillin by separating the sugars. These days, imitations are even cleverer. Through biotechnology, you can extract the scent from fungus and bacteria of ferulic acid that occurs in plants such as devil’s dung and rice, as well as in clove oil. What you don’t really want to know when contemplating the enticing vanilla beans and flowers depicted on yoghurts, ice creams or yoghurt drinks in the supermarkets is that the bulk of synthetic vanillin is made of lignin, a waste product of the cellulose production.
In any case, company and factories trick and deceive to no end. For example, the black dots in your vanilla ice cream or yoghurt are in no way proof that the aromatic pulp of the real vanilla bean was used. Often, they come from finely ground beans.
But that is perhaps something, after all, experts estimate that, these days, more than 90 percent of vanillin used worldwide stems from synthetics produced in a factory.
Naturally, chefs in the top kitchens use only the best vanilla beans, although not only for the desserts. The scratched-out pulp from the beans give asparagus soup an exotic aroma, scallops and lobster are fried in vanilla butter and a fat turbot piece is perfumed with vanilla oil.
The most important varieties for the cook
Experts can see and smell whether a vanilla bean is a top variety. The best ones have an intensive scent, even when they are closed, and their surface is oily and shiny. If they are grey and brittle from the outside, their aroma will also be weaker.
Bourbon vanilla (vanilla)
The name comes from the first, main site of production, the “Île Bourbon.” The long, slender pods contain a lot of seeds and a typical, intensive aroma due to the high content of natural vanillin.
It is somewhat broader and shorter than the bourbon vanilla. The skin is thinner, and the bean contains fewer seeds. The Tahiti vanilla contains less vanillin but comprises other substances that give it a rather flowery, fruity aroma that top chefs adore.
The first European vanilla
Having experimented for a long time, they finally succeeded. In Dutch greenhouses, the microgreens company “Koppert Cress” has been harvesting its first batch of high-quality vanilla pods. These come in three colours. The green ones are harvested fresh and sold directly to the gastronomy sector, allowing the chefs themselves to experiment with the drying and fermenting processes. The red ones are left to ripen on the stalk longer than usual, which gives them unique floral and caramel notes. The third is a dark brown, almost black, and most closely resembles the familiar pods that are most commonly known.