SWEET SIDE OF THINGS: Vanilla … One of the Basics

While on vacation in Costa Rica, Marc and I decided to visit a bio-dynamic Vanilla plantation just outside of Quepos, Costa Rica.  Vanilla is one of the most time and labor-intensive crops when considering the cultivation and processing which explains the high-cost of one of the most popular flavors in the world.  

We walked through the rainforest on one particularly very hot and humid afternoon to witness for ourselves the complexity behind producing some of the finest vanilla.  The vanilla grown in Costa Rica is a Vanilla planifolia (Fragrans) hybrid, cured using the same method used in Madagascar and the vanilla islands in the Indian Ocean called the “Bourbon Method”.

Vanilla is native to the tropical rainforest of southeastern Mexico and Central America.  The Totonacans were the first known Mexican tribe to cultivate vanilla. Hernan Cortez was the first European to taste vanilla in Mexico in 1520.  As Cortez entered the Aztec capital, Montezuma, the emperor handed him a royal beverage, chocolatl, a combination of cocoa beans, corn, vanilla and honey.  The Spaniards brought this drink to the royal courts of Europe and it quickly became the royal drink of choice. During the 1500’s, factories were established to manufacture chocolate with vanilla, however, there was no way to produce vanilla in the quantities needed.  It wasn’t until an ex-slave named Edmond Albius, perfected the method of hand-pollination that vanilla became available on a much larger scale. Madagascar was the largest producer of vanilla, approximately 80% of vanilla production, that has since been more evenly distributed amongst many other countries.  

It is very difficult to explain the hand pollination process; however, it is a very time-consuming process and must be done at just the right time.  The flower blossoms and one must catch it at just the right day. The flower has both the male and female stems and they need to be brought together manually to make the necessary contact required to produce the vanilla bean.  There are no bees, ants or birds that are in anyway involved in this pollination process. For me, this stage alone justifies the price of vanilla, having seen it with my own two eyes.

Vanilla pods are the fruit of a very specific orchid species from Central and Northern South America as well as the West Indies and Southeastern Mexico.  The vanilla vine grows on a host tree, the pods are long, slender and round in shape and filled with thousands of tiny, edible seeds.

Vanilla pods must be cured for the vanillin, which gives vanilla its distinctive flavor, to be produced.  This process can take 3 to 4 months keeping the vanilla beans in a warm environment and slowly drying them until they turn brown and become pliable.    

Over 150 organic compounds make up the flavor of vanilla, which explains why it is hard to imitate the flavor even though many companies try and fail.  The chocolates, pastries and breads that the Frenchman’s Corner carries all use actual vanilla primarily from Madagascar, but when choosing chocolates or cakes, you may wish to ask where the vanilla comes from or if they are using imitation vanilla.  

Vanilla is most often used in sweets such as cakes, chocolates and many other desserts.  It can also be used in savory dishes as well, as an example, seafood, veal and poultry. Vanilla can be used to sweeten liquids, taken out and dried, it can be used up to 3 to 4 times.  

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