Vanilla, the Worlds Second Most Expensive Spice
Vanilla is a coveted and popular spice and is used in its many forms-whole split beans, vanilla paste, dried powder , vanilla sugar and extracts. It is also the second most expensive spice after saffron, due to the fact it can only grow in the tropics , must be hand- pollinated and has to be cured correctly, which is labor intensive and time consuming.
VANILLA is native to Mexico and was cultivated by the Totonac people in what is today the Veracruz state. In the 15th Century, the Aztecs conquered the Totonac people and often took payment in beans. They added vanilla to their chocolate.
The European discoverer Hernan Cortez brough back both vanilla and cacao beans to Spain where it was introduced to the Royal Court. And prepared as a Chocolate drink with ground cacao beans, oranges, honey and vanilla to make it palatable.
It really took until the 17th century for vanilla to be used to flavor other ingredients such as pastries, cream or ice cream and not until the early 1800’s did it appear in any cookbooks. Demand for vanilla increased but it was expensive. Various Europeans tried growing vanilla but they were unsuccessful in their attempts to get the pods to form because they were lacking a key pollinator- the Melipona bee. This bee is native to Mexico and Central America. It has a snout that is longer than a typical bee and can work its way inside the vanilla flower and pollinate it.
In 1841 a 12 year old slave boy on the island of Reunion discovered how to hand pollinate vanilla, although at the time he did not receive due credit for it. Demand, driven by the French spread this discovery to other nations they controlled where vanilla could be grown including Reunion Island, Tahiti, Indonesia, and Madagascar.
Vanilla is a species of vining orchid and the only orchid that produces an edible pod. The flowers grow in clusters called raceme. Only one flower a day on a raceme will bloom, and that flower lasts one day only. Pollination must occur early in the morning. Once pollinated the pod will take approx. 6 months to develop. Orchid are prone to many fungal diseases and weather events like cyclones that often wipe out crops.
When they are finally mature, the beans are hand harvested and then must go through a curing process that consists of killing, sweating, slow drying and conditioning of the beans. If this process isn’t done correctly, the pods will not develop their wonderful flavor and aroma. This entire process takes another 6 months. The pods are then sorted and graded before being sold.
Incidentally artificial vanilla is produced from both wood and the anal gland extraction of beavers! No thanks.
There are several cultivars of vanilla, the most common is V Planifolia introduced from the Americas to Madagascar and other Indian Ocean islands. V. Tahitiensis which is grown in Tahiti and other French Polynesian islands made its way from Guatemala to the Philippines and then to French Polynesia. West Indian Vanilla is from V. Pompona grown in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Each variety has a slightly different flavor and aromatic profile. Bourbon Vanilla actually has no whiskey in it, it merely refers to a former name of Reunion island and vanilla grown in Madagascar. Vanilla has been grown successfully in Hawaii and that’s where I was introduced to its cultivation. One of my Cacao farm tours was on the property of someone who grew vanilla, so I learned to hand pollinate and the steps to harvest and process the beans there.
Today the majority of vanilla beans come from Madagascar but there are Tahitian, Indonesian, Ugandan and Mexican beans widely available.
The FDA regulates how vanilla extract must be made- in 35% distilled alcohol at a rate of 100 grams of beans per liter of alcohol. Commercial vanilla producers use cheap Everclear that is diluted with water to the 35%. No added color is allowed. Mexican vanilla however is not defined by those regulations and artificial coloring and sometimes sugars are added. They are not bound by law as to the word “Pure”. Vanilla takes about 1 year to properly extract. It can be extracted in different types of alcohol, most popular being Vodka, or White rum but also Bourbon. I use premium brands such as Reyka or Ketel One vodka and Captain Morgan White rum for the tastiest extraction.
I currently have available extract I’ve made from Madagascar, Ugandan and Tahitian Beans, aged min 1 year. It is bottled in 4 oz bottles and is priced from $20—$25 per bottle. Only Fed ex allows shipping of liquids so I recommend buying multiple bottles to save on shipping.
I am considering making some vanilla paste as well. Individual beans are $7 and up. Please email me if you are interested in buying vanilla. Hawaiichocolate@gmail.com