THE FASTIDIOUS SPICE
The story of vanilla is one of conquests, travels over tropical seas and a slave boy’s clever idea
Think vanilla and the first thing that pops into mind is vanilla ice cream. Liberally speckled and gently fragrant, vanilla is the perfect flavouring that enriches apple pies and chocolate cake. Almost all home cooks would reach for their bottle of vanilla flavouring as they cream their cake batter or turn out the cookie dough. But few would give a thought to the fact that after saffron, vanilla is the next most expensive spice in the world.
Its pedigree is impressive. Vanilla comes from the orchid family, which is the largest and oldest flowering plant in the world. And in this august family, vanilla is its only edible fruit. For one so rare, it is unsurprisingly fastidious and exacts a tribute from those who wish to consume it. Because vanilla is the most labour-intensive agricultural product in the world, thus also making it very expensive.
After it is planted, the vine cutting takes up to one and a half years to flower. Then it has to be carefully hand pollinated—there lies another story—and the pods left on the vine for another nine months. Once harvested by hand, the pods go through a long process of curing and drying.
They are first blanched in hot water, then placed in containers to sweat for up to two days. Then they go through a process of sunning in the day, and sweating at night, for anywhere between five and 15 days. Next, they are left in racks to dry slowly for up to a month. Finally they are bundled, then shipped to their final destinations. All in all, it takes about one year from flower to finish.
Originating in Mexico, Central and northern South America, vanilla was, at its earliest, known to the Aztecs who consumed it along with chocolate. Spanish conquistadors later brought it to Europe and eventually on to the rest of the world. As a result, vanilla is now grown in other parts of the world, particularly in the moist humid regions between 15.5 degrees north and south of the equator. These days, the majority of the world’s vanilla come from Madagascar in Africa, but they are also cultivated in Tahiti, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, India, the Caribbean and of course, Mexico.
But vanilla’s international propagation did not come easily. While the climate in these latitudes were ideal and thus should mean cultivation success, the early growers found vanilla frustratingly difficult to grow. In 1836, a botanist Charles Morren finally figured out the root of the problem. In Mexico, it was the melipona bee that pollinated the vanilla flowers. Without its help, the flower could not pollinate. The answer came most unexpectedly five years later on the island of Reunion. A slave boy called Edmond Albius took to pollinating his charges by hand. His method was so effective that it spread to neighbouring islands and eventually back to Mexico. And it is Albius’ method which is still used for almost all vanilla crops around the world today. Then again, considering that the flower blooms for less than a day, it is no simple task to pollinate the flowers. The window of opportunity must be carefully watched and pounced upon, and the pollination done just so to ensure a pod emerges as a result.
With all these inconveniences, it is little wonder that pure vanilla is a very expensive thing.
IMITATIONS AND SUBSTITUTES
Fragrant, sweet and complex, vanilla is made of up to 300 flavour components. Of these, the main component of the bean and what we most closely associate with vanilla is a naturally occurring chemical compound called vanillin.
The purest form of vanilla is, of course, the pod and seeds itself. There are several types of vanilla bean which vary in flavour. Bourbon vanilla—named after the old name for Reunion—is known of its sweet, rumlike flavour and accounts for up to 85 per cent of the world’s vanilla. Considered the best of beans, they refer to vanilla grown in Madagascar and other islands in the Indian Ocean including Reunion and Comoros. Mexican vanilla, which makes up only about five per cent of the world’s production, offers up spicy, woody characteristics. Indonesian vanilla, 25 per cent of the global supply, has some smoky elements to it. Tahitian vanilla is floral and fruity, with less of a vanilla flavour. While Papua New Guinea produces Tahitian beans, they are not as plump and intensely flavoured as those from Tahiti.
Vanillin can also be synthesised from clove oil, pine sap and even from wood pulp, a by-product of the paper industry. Given the high price of real vanilla, imitations are an enticing, cheaper option.
Next to getting the bean itself is to use pure vanilla extract. According to US specifications, something thus named will contain 35 per cent alcohol, 13.38 per cent vanilla bean extractives and purified water. It may also contain some sugar, corn syrup and caramel colouring.
Next down the rung is pure vanilla flavour which is made from vanilla extractives, purified water and possibly sugar and corn syrup. It does not have any alcohol,
but contains propylene glycol, a viscous colourless liquid, instead.
Other natural flavours are made from wheat germ extract and other plants that contain vanillin, while imitation vanilla is made using synthetic vanillin made in a laboratory. Most of it is a by-product of paper pulp used in papermaking.
WAYS WITH VANILLA
For its high price, thankfully nothing of the pod and seeds need be wasted. Use pure vanilla when its flavours are front and centre of the dish you plan to make. For instance, vanilla ice cream or a panna cotta. Scrape off the seeds directly into the cooking custard or batter. Depending on the amount you have cooking, use one-third to the entire pod of seeds. Then push a spent pod into a jar of sugar to infuse and make vanilla sugar. Vanilla is great with poached or stewed fruits too—simply add the pod to the poaching liquid. When you’re done, save the syrup for drizzling over desserts and ice cream.
For a savoury alternative, make vanilla salt using sea salt or fleur de sel. Sprinkle it over chocolate chip cookies, caramels and coconut milk based custards and puddings, or over roasted fish, lobster, carrots and prawns.
Finally, try making your own vanilla extract. If you’re feeling extravagant, slice three or four vanilla pods lengthwise and steep them in a cup of vodka or, for added buzz, cognac. Keep them in a dark cool place, and shake it from time to time.
ITS PEDIGREE IS IMPRESSIVE. VANILLA COMES FROM THE ORCHID FAMILY, WHICH IS THE LARGEST AND OLDEST FLOWERING PLANT IN THE WORLD. AND IN THIS AUGUST FAMILY, VANILLA IS ITS ONLY EDIBLE FRUIT. FOR ONE SO RARE, IT IS UNSURPRISINGLY FASTIDIOUS AND EXACTS A TRIBUTE FROM THOSE WHO WISH TO CONSUME IT.