Vanilla = boring? No way!

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in July 2012]

To many people “vanilla” is synonymous with “plain” or “boring”, perhaps because of the bland taste of vanilla ice cream (the most popular ice cream flavor worldwide) or because most Americans get their vanilla flavor either in the form of vanilla extract, which contains at least 35% alcohol (and tastes accordingly), or from imitation vanilla derived from wood fibers. By one estimate, 97% of the vanilla used today is artificial. The real vanilla, however, is the second most expensive spice after saffron. Its flavor is as delicate as its story is fascinating.

Vanilla fruits (also called pods or beans) come from orchids of the genus Vanilla that are native to Southeast Mexico and Guatemala. Both the Mayas and, later, the Aztecs used vanilla to flavor chocolate, which they consumed in liquid form. According to an old Mexican legend:

“the beautiful girl Vanila and the youth Chocolati… loved each other very much. A bad magician, who grudged them their love, transformed Chocolati in a tree and Vanila in an orchid. However, the love of the both was so strong that the orchid Vanila embraced the tree Chocolati like the girl once had embraced her lover. And it’s said that who picks the fruits of the tree and the orchid and prepares for himself a drink from it, will feel nothing but love.”

The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is credited with introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s. Through the 17th century vanilla was used mostly as it had been in America: to flavor chocolate. The French would later marry vanilla with its proverbial partner, ice cream. The term “French vanilla” originates from the French custard-based ice cream, using vanilla pods, cream, and egg yolks. The French are also credited with innovative uses of vanilla, including in savory dishes. A few years ago in Paris, I learned a weird-sounding but delicious recipe for cod with zucchinis and tomatoes en papillote (in parchment pockets), flavored with fresh vanilla beans.

Vanilla map

Vanilla orchids grow best in the belts between 10 and 20 degrees north or south of the equator. They require a warm, moist tropical climate with year round temperatures of 75 to 85 degrees F. The growing area should also have relatively little wind and fairly high humidity. The vine grows best in soil rich in organic matter on terrain that is gently sloping to allow adequate, but not excessive, drainage. Vanilla plants need a mixture of sun and shade and grow from sea level to about 2,500 feet; above this altitude, the flowers rarely bloom.

In the wild, vanilla is only pollinated by the Melipona bee, indigenous to its Mexican homeland. As a result, early attempts to cultivate the plant outside Mexico and Central America proved futile. But the discovery of the hand-pollination technique in 1841 on the French island of Réunion allowed global cultivation. By 2010, only 6% of the world’s vanilla came from Mexico. The best known variety—Bourbon vanilla, or Vanilla planifolia—is named after the former designation of Réunion, Île Bourbon. The French loved vanilla so much they bought plant cuttings from Latin America to their tropical colonies in Madagascar, Réunion, and French Polynesia, especially Tahiti. Until recently, Madagascar was the world’s largest producer of vanilla, but since its political and financial crisis of 2009, Indonesia has taken first place, producing 36% of the world’s yield, while Madagascar now provides only 28%. More recently, a number of vanilla plantations in the fertile Sava region in Madagascar’s northeastern tip have been destroyed by tropical storms, sinking the country’s economy even further. Besides Mexico, Réunion, Madagascar, and Indonesia, vanilla is also grown in Mauritius, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda, Brazil, Jamaica and other islands in the West Indies, and now in India, mainly in the southern states of Kerala, Tamilnadu and Karnataka. Nearly 20% of the world’s vanilla comes from China.

Another special vanilla growing region is Tahiti, which is the birthplace of a different cultivar, Vanilla tahitiensis, grown only there and on the island of Niue. Although it has much lower vanillin content, Vanilla tahitiensis is praised for its more delicate, fruitier taste, its sweet floral scent, and its rarity, accounting for only 1-2% of all total production. Since the turn of the 21st century, Tahitian vanilla experienced a rise in popularity, as many of the more expensive restaurants now prepare their panna cotta, crème brûlée, and vanilla ice cream using this variety. In some parts of the world, a curious parallel is encountered in the increasing use of tonka beans, which are reputed as having a somewhat similar flavor to vanilla; in the U.S., however, tonka beans are off limits because they contain coumarin, which is known to cause liver damage.

As is often the case with rare and exotic substances, vanilla has been considered an aphrodisiac, as well as a remedy for fevers. Though such these purported uses have never been scientifically proven, modern research suggests that vanilla may strengthen immune system. The fragrance of vanilla has been found to significantly reduce patients’ anxiety in claustrophobia-inducing MRI machines. The essential oils of vanilla have also been used for aromatherapy and in perfume industry. Vanilla absolute, not a vodka but the most concentrated form of natural vanilla, provides the long-lasting base note in perfumes such as Chanel No. 5, Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium and Tresor by Lancôme; it can cost up to $6,000 per kilogram.Vanilla is even used to flavor cigar and pipe tobacco. And chefs keep reinventing vanilla by paring it with unexpected ingredients, including lobster, butternut squash, and duck.

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