Updated: Mar 11, 2022
Today I started a new batch of vanilla extract and it took me back to my time in Hawaii.
A few years ago I ran my signature chocolate tour “Food of the Gods” on a small Hawaii farm in Haiku, Maui. The farm was a yoga retreat but also had a large planting of vanilla vines. Vanilla is an amazing crop and many people don’t realize it’s an epiphyte orchid. The beautiful flowers are bright yellow/green and only last for a day. They must be hand pollinated early in the morning. After a successful pollination a vanilla pod takes about 9 months to mature. When the long beans are ready to pick they must undergo a kill and ferment process, then dry and cure for about 6 months.
I learned a lot about vanilla, participated in pollinating and began making my own vanilla extracts for chocolate making. There is a huge difference between store bought vanilla extract and the ones I crafted. Vanilla Beans are graded “A” and “B” in the market. Grading looks at length and pliability of the bean. Grade B beans are often dried out or split but are used in commercial production of extract. Grade A beans are typically used by chefs and bakers because the plumper beans are filled with more caviar, the tiny speck seeds inside the bean. Extracts made form Grade A beans are more intense in aroma and flavor, precisely because of the caviar. Extract may be labelled single or double fold meaning strength. Grocery store vanilla is usually single fold. They can be made with Everclear, Vodka, Rum or Bourbon but most commonly are made with vodka. Some alcohol free extracts are made with food grade glycerin. Extracts take about a year to make, so are quite costly, even the supermarket ones. However, there is doubt that this beloved flavoring ingredient is the magic ingredient in recipes, and only a small amount is needed to make a big difference in flavor.
We think vanilla enhances the flavor of chocolate so would add a vanilla bean to our chocolate batches.
Just like the single origin chocolates, vanilla comes from different tropical regions. The plant is native to Mexico but Mexico actually has a small crop today. Madagascar grows the most vanilla in the world. Other important origins , with smaller production include Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Ecuador, Uganda and Hawaii. Tropical orchids are subject to viral diseases and areas where hurricanes can wipe out years of growth. There are three distinct varieties in the world-Vanilla Planifolia (most common) Vanilla Tahitiensis (from Tahiti) and Vanilla Pompona. ( wild, South American variety) Just like the cacao, each variety and where it grows lends itself to unique flavor profiles.
When our new Food of the Gods workshop starts back up you will be able to sample single origin chocolate and vanilla, and learn more about how both are grown and processed.
Vaniila sun drying in Hawaii