You are currently viewing Vanilla

Vanilla is the only edible fruit of a orchid. There are hundreds of species of vanilla orchids, but the one we use commercially is Vanilla planifolia. It is native to Mexico, Central America and northern South America.

Vanilla orchids are vine-like plants growing up to 20 feet long. Their fruit grows in pods from the end of tendrils hanging from the vine. When ripe, each pod contains about a hundred black seeds surrounded by an inch-long white pulp containing sugars and aromatic molecules that we call vanillin.

Vanilla was well known to the Aztecs before their conquest by Cortez in 1519. They called it tlilxochitl, “black flower,” and used it as a flavoring and perfume. The Spanish learned about it soon after arriving in Mexico; they called it vainilla, “little pod,” and introduced it to Spain, where it became popular with perfumers. But no one realized how well vanilla would complement chocolate until Hernan Cortez’s soldiers encountered both in Mayan temples in 1519 during their siege of Montezuma II’s capital city, Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).

The Spaniards didn’t have chocolate themselves yet at that time;

Vanilla is one of the most popular flavors in the world, but it’s almost impossible to grow. It was first discovered by a 12-year-old slave in Mexico sometime around 1520 A.D. who found vanilla beans growing on a vine in a thicket, and from then on vanilla became an expensive luxury enjoyed only by the rich because it had to be cultivated in tropical areas away from the equator, and even then it took about three years for a new vanilla plant to bear fruit.

Vanilla has always been so expensive that recipes using it were considered top secret. For example, when Thomas Jefferson brought vanilla beans with him to America in 1791, he refused to tell anyone where he had gotten them or how much they cost. For that reason, cooks called vanilla “the spice of the gods” because they kept its use secret and would never reveal what they put into their recipes so that no one could copy them.

The word “vanilla” comes from the Spanish word vaina, which means “vulva,” and there is indeed some truth to this since vanilla beans come from inside a pod of fleshy fruit with a little opening very much like a woman’s vagina. They are also used as an ingredient for making ice cream,

Vanilla (genus Vanilla) is a flavoring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla, primarily from the Mexican species, flat-leaved vanilla (V. planifolia). It is the only edible species of the genus and is widely used, especially in cooking, perfume manufacture and aromatherapy.

Aboriginal Mesoamerican people cultivated the vine of the vanilla orchid, called tlilxochitl by the Aztecs. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is credited with introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s.

The word vanilla, derived from vainilla (“little pod”), is translated simply as “little pod”. In 1837, Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren discovered this effect, and Edmond Albius discovered the process of artificially pollinating the plant. The method proved financially unworkable and was not deployed commercially. In 1841, a 13-year-old French-Caribbean slave named Edmond Albius, who lived on Île de la Réunion (now Réunion), made the first discovery of how to pollinate the vanilla orchid flower manually. Hand-pollination allowed global cultivation of the plant.

This was

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. It’s easy to forget that when it has become such a ubiquitous flavoring.*

Vanilla is also one of the most labor-intensive commodities on earth, which is why synthetic vanillin (artificial vanilla) tastes nothing like natural vanilla extract. Most people who buy vanilla don’t know this because they’ve never tasted real vanilla. But chefs and food professionals know, because they are exposed to a wider variety of ingredients than most people.

I have heard several explanations for why real vanilla extract costs so much: the labor, Madagascar, Mexican plantations destroyed by hurricane Stan, and so on. The truth is that it costs that much because an efficient market for vanilla extract has not yet been established in most countries. Supply and demand determines price; supply and speculation determines price.

This is not to say that there aren’t real reasons for high prices of vanilla: it’s just that these reasons are not as well-understood as they should be. The primary reason for high prices is actually a consequence of low prices–at least in the United States. Vanilla costs more here than elsewhere because we have longer working hours than almost any other country, but no paid vacation time.* This means that Americans

The ancient Greeks and Romans prized the flavor of vanilla, and so it was a prize of their colonial ventures. But the vine that produced vanilla fruit was difficult to grow, and the fruit was hard to preserve, so vanilla remained a rare and expensive spice.

Molecular biology changed that. In the past few decades, scientists have figured out how to clone genes and transfer them between organisms. They have also learned how to make new proteins by manipulating DNA in test tubes. That has made it possible to mass-produce many kinds of drugs, including ones that smell like vanilla.

The smell is created by a family of several hundred related molecules called vanillin. Chemists can make vanillin synthetically; the tricky part is making enough of it to be worth while. The first synthetic vanillin factory, built in Germany in the nineteen-eighties, could produce only five tons a year; now factories in China can make almost two thousand tons. Most of it gets turned into vanillin extract for flavoring food, but some goes into perfumes and other scents. The world’s synthetic-vanillin factories together now make more than two thousand tons a year; real vanilla plants generate less than half that amount by themselves.

But real plants have an advantage:

Vanilla is a spice. It comes from an orchid. The part of the orchid we use is the little green bean that forms in the middle of some of its flowers.

Fancier vanilla, known as “bourbon,” comes from a different species, and has a stronger flavor with more notes. Vanilla extract — the kind you can buy at the store — is made by steeping vanilla beans in a solution of water and alcohol.

The most expensive variety of vanilla is Tahitian, also known as “Bourbon.” It has a deep, rich flavor and hints of caramel. The less expensive variety, Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla (which I use) has similar qualities to Tahitian. Mexican vanilla has a woody taste and a slightly unpleasant odor; it is also less expensive than other types of vanilla.

Mexican vanilla is also often recommended for use in recipes calling for “vanilla beans,” which are actually little pieces of pod that have been dried and cured in various ways to give them different flavors and aromas. One way of curing vanilla beans involves smoking them with cherry wood; another uses oak (the kind used for making whiskey barrels). These processes impart wonderful flavors to the vanilla beans, but those flavors will be lost if you grind

Vanilla is a tropical fruit, and it’s hard to grow outside of tropical climates. So in the past, most vanilla has been grown in Mexico and other Central American countries.

But starting around 1900, some food companies developed a taste for artificial vanilla flavor. Artificial vanilla flavored ice cream was originally made by combining vanilla extract with coal tar (the black goop left over from refining gasoline). That was cheaper than using real vanilla, but it wasn’t very good.

Then chemists figured out how to synthesize vanillin, the main ingredient in real vanilla extract. They did this by combining phenol (also known as carbolic acid; it’s the active ingredient in disinfectants like Lysol) with guaiacol or syringol (also called wood alcohol; it’s the active ingredient in many kinds of cough syrup).

So now we have two identical products, one of them made from a tropical fruit and the other from coal tar or wood alcohol. Which one do you think is better for you?

Leave a Reply