Vanilla: nothing plain about it
“Plain old Vanilla” is a figure of speech as popular as “a dime a dozen” or “a piece of cake”.
Truthfully however, there is absolutely nothing plain about Vanilla!
Vanilla is actually a wonderfully complicated, intriguing and luxurious spice. Chemists who have studied the vanilla bean have concluded that there are over 400 different types of components (such as protein, sugars, tannins, minerals etc.) and the list of sensory qualities is almost never ending (woody, nutty, weedy, creamy, spicy, etc.)
In what we know today as Mexico, vanilla beans were so valuable that they were used as currency. The Maya and the Aztecs worshipped vanilla (as they did cacao). The Totonac regarded vanilla as a blessing and being able to find a mature vine with lots of fruit was the best kept secret at the time.
Today, the plant is considered to be critically endangered and unfortunately can no longer survive in the wild as it once used to. Today’s vanilla trade needs to rely on hand-pollination, making it one of the most labour intensive ingredients in the world.
We are one of the few ice cream makers who actually use real vanilla in their ice cream. We have a lot of customers asking why our vanilla is not yellow, what the black specks are, if “bourbon vanilla” contains alcohol, or why it costs more.
So we decided to write a few articles about the wonder that is vanilla. Here is the first of several. We hope after reading them, that you regard vanilla as a spice, differently!
The Vanilla Plant
Let’s start with the basics. A lot of customers ask us if vanilla grows on a tree. Technically it does, although it is a vine which actually grows best in biodiverse conditions, wrapping itself around neighbouring trees.
Vanilla beans, or pods are actually the fruit of one of the oldest flowering plants (one which most of us are familiar with: orchids). Of roughly 25,000 species of orchids, the vanilla orchid is the only one which produces a spice. And, of the vanilla orchids, there are actually roughly 100 different species which grow in every tropical climate except for Australia.
Vanilla thrives within 25 degrees of the equator, but some countries are better known for their vanilla than others. Tahitian and Madagascan vanilla varieties seem to dominate. We predominately use Madagascan vanilla for our ice cream, but when available, we also use a superb Ecuadorian vanilla.
Almost all of the vanilla we know and love as an ingredient today comes from a plant indigenous to Central America and parts of Mexico: Vanilla Planifolia
The orchid flowers only once a year and has to be hand-pollinated (more on that below) within a very tiny window of a few hours.
A vanilla vine needs to be about 6 years old before it can start to bear fruit. The vine is actually very fragile and sensitive – “high maintenance” if you will – as it requires very particular amounts of shade, sun, moisture, humidity and dryness in order to produce flowers. The vine doesn’t like being too cold at night or too hot during the day, and the plant as a whole prefers to live on hills where the soil can drain well.
In the Sava region of Madagascar, the conditions for growing Vanilla are almost perfect, which is why some of the best vanilla in the world comes from there. When the weather cooperates, Madagascar produces more than half of the world’s vanilla supply.
But how do we get from orchid on a vine to the bean sold in the supermarket?
THIS is a process. A long, complicated one in fact…
Vanilla is one of the most labour-intensive food items in the world. Recently it has been worth more than silver.
The entire process from hand pollination to processed bean can take up to 1.5 years.
The quality of the end product, the vanilla bean, is dependant almost entirely on the weather and the how well the beans were cured, which actually is one of the most complicated processes. It takes many vanilla farmers years to perfect the art of curing and drying the beans properly. One element is something we have no control over, the other element is a tricky and painstaking process.
The actual flower of the vanilla orchid is rather unassuming and contrary to popular belief, it does not smell of vanilla. Vanilla beans only get their distinct and unique smell once they have been dried and cured.
Hand-pollination starts in the rainy season of November and involves pulling off the flower’s petals to access the pollen and the pistil. Using a thin needle or thorn, the membrane covering the pistil is lifted with one hand while the other hand brings the flower’s pollen sac into contact with the pistil to pollinate it.
Hand-pollination is a delicate process which is why the vanilla trade often employs women and small children to hand-pollinate. Because their hands are smaller and thinner, the job is easier for them. But hand-pollination comes with another big complication: the vanilla orchid only blooms very early in the morning. They actually die off by the afternoon, which means that hand-pollination can only occur in a very small window of a few hours in the morning, before the flower dies off.
Eventually, a long, thin, green vanilla pod gradually develops from each successfully pollinated flower. It takes a month for the pod to reach its full length - however, the vanilla pods are only harvested 9 months later.
After they have been harvested, the beans are placed in warm water which stops them from ripening. They are then “sweated” with burlap cloth which starts a natural fermentation process, by which the pods turn brown and start to ripen.
Only at this stage of the process do the famous vanilla aromas start to develop, and the beans are placed in rotating periods of sun and shade until they dry. This curing stage is absolutely crucial for the development of great quality vanilla beans. Too much sun will make them dry out and not enough sun will increase the chance of mould. Moisture will make the beans rot which is why the curer must alternate between shade and sun for an optimal “cure”, something which also depends greatly on the weather.
The beans are then inspected by hand on a daily basis, before spending roughly 9 months in drying boxes where they start to shrink and lose their original moisture content. This stage is crucial and depends greatly on the skills of the person curing the beans. This process cannot be hurried.
As we mentioned before, the quality of Vanilla depends greatly on two main factors. One which humans have control over (the curing process) and another which humans do not have control over (the weather).
Real vanilla comes at a high price, not only because of how it grows and how the weather influences it, but also how it is harvested – the price of human security and freedom, if you will. You can read about these issues in the linked blog posts.
It is no wonder that Vanilla costs as much as it does. There are cheaper immitations on the market which are - not surprisingly - very popular. Next time you buy flavored yogurt, a packaged dessert, average ice cream, or a perfume, check the ingredients! "Vanilla aromas" are the standard but are absolutely no replacement for the real thing.
We feel that it is our responsibility as truly artisan ice cream makers to KNOW exactly where our ingredients come from - how they were grown and harvested - and what the ultimate price entails. Vanilla is definitely no ordinary spice. To be honest, before switching careers and becoming ice cream makers, we did not know about the intricacies of how vanilla is grown and sold. Our research started when we had to find our first supplier, and started asking questions. A lot of questions. Then we started reading books. "Vanilla" by Tim Ecott is probably the best one although "Vanilla" by Patricia Rain aka "The Vanilla Queen" was also extremely informative. We hope to visit our suppliers in Madagascar and also Ecuador in the near future, but in the mean time we will continue to use only 100% vanilla beans from trusted suppliers. We accept no cheaper aromas, powders, oils or substitutes. This is the reason why we do not offer Vanilla on a daily basis and we need to charge a little more. After reading our posts we hope you can understand why!