23 January 2006

Primer: Vanilla Part One


I wasn't expecting these notes from people about this little project of mine--if at any point you think I'm ignoring something, or something doesn't make sense please send me an email and I'll do my best to answer questions or figure things out...

As with everything else, let's start at the very beginning...a very good place to start (as The Fussy Eater can attest: everything is a song cue).

I think that the most logical place to start is in research--what is vanilla, where did it come from, how it's processed etc etc etc.

I have to write the following caveat: I went to several sources and in some areas they didn't agree, so I've done my best to digest and synthesize info...

Origin and History
Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla fragrens) is a tropical climbing orchid indigenous to the New World and is the only member of its genus that serves any real culinary use. No one seems to know when it was discovered, but we do know that the Totonac Natives, who lived along the Mexican coast, were the first to use it; it’s assumed they introduced it to the Aztecs. For those of you interested in a more romantic story, here’s a link to Patricia Rain’s translation of an origin myth.

Spaniards were the first Europeans to note vanilla’s use, observing it in Montezuma’s chocolaty beverage “tlilxochitl“ and for sale in Aztec markets. Vanilla exportation was in full force by the late 1500s when Spanish chocolate manufacturing factories were established; the spice quickly developed a reputation as both a nerve stimulant and an aphrodisiac. The word “vanilla” is an Anglicism of the Spanish word “vainilla,” meaning little sheath or little husk. England's Elizabeth I’s apothecary, Hugh Morgan, is credited for using vanilla as a flavouring in its own right.

What stumped many botanists for centuries was vanilla pollination. Many plants taken to Europe didn’t reproduce: the diminutive flower has a small membrane that prevents its stamen and stigma from touching. Natural vanilla pollination only occurs in Mexico (via tiny little bees). Albius, a former slave in Reunion, developed a practical, artificial pollinating method in the 1800s, making commercial crop cultivation possible.

Processing Vanilla
After saffron, vanilla is the world’s most expensive spice for three primary reasons: it’s very labour-intensive (hand pollination and curing), there are few regions that grow it and farmers do not harvest large crops. The beans are extremely valuable, forcing many farmers to brand pods to protect their crops from “vanilla rustlers.” For each kilo of cured beans produced, three to five kilos of green bean-like pods are used.

These pods are produced approximately six weeks after a successful pollination. Roughly four to eight months later, a slight yellowish tinge appears at the pod’s tips (“canary tails”), signalling harvest’s beginning.

After the pods are picked, they are laid out in boxes and cured with high heat exposure (through hot water, steam, a kiln or the sun). Curing time varies by type, ranging from a few weeks to several months. The crop then spends several days alternating between exposed to the sun and being wrapped in a cloth to sweat from residual heat. The final vanilla preparation stage involves smoothening and straightening the beans before drying for several weeks, when its flavours develop.

Prior to sale, the beans are graded and bundled in groups of 60 to 100. The final, cured bean has turned a dark brown or black and its length averages from 18 to 20 cm, and has a shrivelled appearance with many longitudinal, ridges and indentations. It’s as flexible as liquorice rope and its surface is covered in givre (glucose and vanillin crystals). When split lengthwise, the spice has a black sticky mass of millions of minute seeds. Its aroma is sweet and fragrant and floral and its flavour is rich and appealing.

A brief and hopefully not-too-garbled science paragraph

The pod contains thousands of teeny black seeds embedded within a complex mixture of sugars, fats, amino acids and phenolic compounds. Closer to its walls are concentrations of enzymes that release aromatic phenolics. The act of curing kills the pod, making it unable to its sugars and amino acids and frees vanillin and other related phenolic molecules “from their bondage to sugar molecules.” Heat and sunlight evaporate some moisture, discourage microbial growth and generate pigments and complex aromas via browning reactions and amino acids.

…yeah, that was garbled.

I'll be back in a couple of days to post the second part of this.


related post: Primer: Vanilla Part Two

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Anonymous said...

What an excellent post! I have a whole new respect for the priciness of these marvellous beans. Looking forward to part II already ...

Anonymous said...

Very, very interesting & well written ... anxiously awaiting part two.