Vanilla History

Vanilla Beans: Past and Present

VANILLA is a sweet aromatic orchid grown to about 12 feet high with clusters of fragrant flowers. It was named by the Swedish botanist, Olof Schwartz, "Vainilla" from the Spanish for "little sheath" and anglicized to Vanilla. Vanilla is widely used for its flavor in baked goods and for its fragrance in soaps, lotions, and candles. Its medicinal properties reduce stress and promote calming, and it is thought to be an aphrodisiac.

The History

Around 1000 A.D. the first people to have discovered vanilla were the Totonaca tribe, native to southeastern Mexico in the area now called Vera Cruz. The Aztecs conquered the Totonacas and also came to share their belief that the vanilla bean was the food of the gods.

In 1518, Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez met Emperor Montezuma while on a search for treasures in the new world. Cortez was served a drink of cacao flavored with vanilla called tlilxochitl. He at immediately fell in love with its aroma and rich flavor, and he took bags of cacao and vanilla beans back with him to Spain. Within a short time Spanish chefs were making vanilla-flavored chocolate for the wealthy and powerful.

Until the latter part of the 19th century Mexico was the sole producer of vanilla, but in the early 1800's the French took cuttings of the vanilla orchid to the King's garden in Saint-Denis on Ile de La Réunion. The name Bourbon Vanilla for Vanilla Planifolia comes from Ile de Bourbon, the name of the island of Réunion when it was ruled by the Louis kings of France, whose surname was Bourbon. The plants flourished however, no pods grew because of the lack of a small bee native only to Mexico to pollinate the flowers.

In 1837 the Belgian botanist Morren was the first person to succeed in artificially pollinating the Vanilla flower. In the following year Neumann, a French botanist, succeeded in repeating a successful artificial pollination. However, on La Réunion Island, the process did not work. In 1841 Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave, discovered the technique of manual pollination. In 1848 Réunion exported to France about 50 pods (175 grams). Vanilla cuttings were soon taken to the neighboring islands of Madagascar, Comoro and Santa Maria and by 1898 about 200 tons had been produced by the French colonies. England and Belgium soon began cultivating the vanilla orchid in many of their own colonial possessions around the world.

Successful plantations were also established in Indonesia and Tahiti. By the early 20th century Madagascar gained control of the world vanilla market and before long Madagascar, Comoro and Reunion produced 80% of the world’s vanilla supply, with 20% produced in India, Tahiti, Uganda, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga. Mexican vanilla, revered as the best, is scarce outside Mexico, since their harvest produces only enough for the domestic market.

Creating the exquisite flavor

Vanilla is considered to be the most labor intensive of all agricultural products. The entire process of vanilla cultivation, pollination and harvesting is done by hand. Because of the remote locations of the growers no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used.
Many of the vanilla growers are in regions with no roads making it impossible to truck in chemicals. The ripe vanilla bean lacks flavor and aroma. During the curing process, glucovanillin created during the ripening of the vanilla pod is converted to glucose and vanillin. The cured beans vary in flavor and fragrance depending on where they are grown in the world, the soil, climate and environmental differences as well as the differences in curing processes. Vanilla like gourmet coffee is a product of its environment in that its ultimate flavor is affected by the other plants and minerals in the surrounding area.

The Vanilla Species

Madagascar Bourbon (planifolia) is the most common bean used in extracts. Bourbon beans from Madagascar and the Comoros are described as having a creamy, hay-like, and sweet aroma, with strong vanillin overtones.

Mexican vanilla beans, also planifolia, are very similar to Madagascar beans though they have a mellower, smooth quality and a spicy, woody fragrance. Dark chocolate, dairy desserts, beverages, poultry and meat are complemented by Mexican vanilla. Madagascar and Mexican vanillas both provide the familiar natural vanillin flavor that we associate with vanilla ice cream and other vanilla-flavored desserts and beverages. They are the gold standard of the vanilla market.

Tahitian vanilla beans (vanilla tahitensis) originate from planifolia stock that was taken to Tahiti, where it mutated in the wild. It is now classified as a separate species (Vanilla tahitensis) as it is considerably different in appearance and flavor from Planifolia vanilla. The beans are often described as smelling like licorice, cherries, prunes, or red wine. Tahitian beans offer a more floral fruity flavor most suitable in savory and fruit dishes.

Vanilla Bean Products

Extract: Cured beans can be used in their whole or ground form, they are most commonly used for producing extracts, flavors, oleoresins and powders. Pure Vanilla extract is the only flavor with a US FDA standard of identity in the Code of Federal Regulations. The Code requires a minimum of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of 35% alcohol and 65% water mixture(80 proof). Vanilla Extract is made by percolating chopped vanilla beans in ethyl alcohol and water. This process is also referred to as macerating the vanilla beans. The process is usually kept as cool as possible to minimize flavor loss, although some manufacturers feel that there must be some heat to create the best extraction. The extraction process takes about 48 hours after which the extracts will mellow in the tanks with the beans from days to weeks, depending on the processor; next they are filtered into a holding tank where the amber-colored liquid extract remains to age until being bottled. Optional ingredients include glycerin, corn syrup, sugar and propylene glycol. Most companies use a consistent blend of beans, sometimes from several regions, to create their signature flavor.

Natural Vanilla Flavor: a mix of pure vanilla and other natural substances other than the vanilla bean. It usually is made with a glycerin or a propylene glycol base.

Vanilla-vanillin: a mix of pure vanilla extract and synthetic substances, most commonly vanillin.

Vanilla powder: a mixture of ground vanilla beans and vanilla oleoresin combined with carbohydrate carriers and flow agents.

Imitation Vanilla: a mixture made from synthetic substances, which imitate the vanilla smell and flavor. The two most common sources for synthetic vanillin are Lignin Vanillin, a by-product of the paper industry, which has been chemically treated to resemble the taste of pure vanilla extract, and Ethyl Vanillin, which is a coal tar derivative and far stronger than either Lignin Vanillin or pure vanilla. Because vanilla is in such demand, and because it is so expensive, synthetics are often used instead of natural vanilla - 97% of vanilla used as a flavor and fragrance is synthetic.

In Summary
Real Vanilla, with its complex flavor profile, can be incorporates into a wide range of foods. In many regions it has specific uses like smoothing spicy sauces, to flavoring cookies, fruit and Crème Bruleé. It is one the most utilized flavors in recipes. Vanilla harmonizes very well with many other flavors and is used not only as stand-alone flavor, but also as a component of a complex flavor profile. Vanilla acts as a flavor enhancer to boost other flavors.

Excerpts from Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Favorite Flavor & Fragrance and The Vanilla Chef by Patricia Rain, The Vanilla.COMpany used with permission.