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Vanilla is the worlds most popular flavour. It is only second to saffron as the world’s most expensive spice. Why the fuss? Why is it so pricey?
The vanilla pod grows on a climbing orchid native to Mexico and today grows in steamy, tropical and sub tropical forests within a 20° band around the equator. To prepare these ‘beans’ is a lengthy, involved, labour intensive and technical process.
Today’s Bourbon Vanilla originates from Mexico and grows throughout the Caribbean.
Madagascar and Indonesia grow the majority of the world’s crop (mostly Bourbon vanilla) having taken over from Mexico as the largest grower in the 19th century. Additional countries that grow vanilla include Guatemala, Costa Rica, Uganda, China, India, PNG, Niue, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, and the Philippines.
GROWING AND HARVESTING
Vanilla is a climbing, perennial orchid with aerial and ground roots that grow in a mulch layer. There are about 150 varieties but only two produce edible fruit in the form of pods or beans. The orchid plant grows, almost triffid-like up tree trunks and supporting canopies. It produces delicate flowers which open for a short period, each at a certain point when they are ready. They need to be pollinated within a few hours. In the past this was performed efficiently by a tiny native bee, sadly now extinct so pollination is painstakingly carried out by humans on each flower.
Vanilla is a very labour-intensive agricultural crop where the yearly production of a healthy plant is 1.5 to 2Kg of green vanilla. It takes 5 to 6 kilos of green vanilla pods to produce 1Kg of cured vanilla.
It will take up to three years after the vines are planted before the first flowers appear. The pods resemble big green beans and must remain on the vine for nine months in order to completely develop their signature aroma. However, when the beans or pods are harvested, they have neither flavour nor fragrance. They develop these distinctive properties during the curing process. It always intrigues me as to how people discovered it could have such a fabulous flavour once dried!
When pods are harvested, they are heat treated under the sun every day for weeks-to-months until they have shrunk to 20% of their original size. The pods are then sorted and graded according to size and the presence of scaring or curling.
Bourbon vanilla is named for the islands now known as Reunion and the Comoros, but in the early 19th century were called the Bourbon Islands. Bourbon vanilla plant stock originally came from Mexico. Bourbon vanilla and Mexican vanilla are basically the same.
Tahitian vanilla was stock that was taken to Tahiti. Tahitian vanilla is a different species that mutated over time. The pods are fatter, moister, and sweeter, with less natural vanillin than other vanillas. As a result, it’s very fruity and often described as smelling like licorice, cherry, prunes, or wine.
The environment plays its role in the production of this unique fruit, causing even the same variety to produce differences that are attributed to the area it is grown in. With evolution of new producer countries the vanilla market is constantly changing.
The purest form of vanilla. Ensure pods are flexible and plump, if they look like stick insects and are brittle they will yield few seeds and little flavour. Highest grade of pods will be plump and long, with sheen on the dark brown exterior of the pod and plenty of sticky luscious seeds inside.
Vanilla pods should be kept in a cool dark place, but they should also be kept dry so that they don’t mould. Store them in re-sealable bags or a suitable airtight container.
If you feel extravagant, split the pod in half length ways and scrape out seeds with a rounded edged knife, discard the bean then add the seeds to your dish. Or split the bean and add to poaching liquid for fruit. Or simply use whole then dry with absorbent kitchen paper and store for the next time. Beans can only be used a few times as the flavour and aroma will be weaker each time it is used.
My favourite vanilla product. Paste is easy to use, just ensure it’s a fairly loose paste rather than too dry when it is difficult to combine with cake batters and liquids. It consists of the insides of loads of beans in a sticky mass!
Vanilla Paste should be kept in a cool, dark place as light can affect it. Only refrigerate during warmer months.
Use about a half of the amount compared to vanilla extract. The vanilla flavour also remains in cooked items so is ideal for baking and hot sauces and can be used of course in cold applications.
Good vanilla extract is pricey, but worth the outlay. Extracted in alcohol it is light textured but dark brown, clear liquid. It contains no sugar. Real vanilla is a complex mix of more than 250 separate flavours which are extracted in alcohol.
Pure Vanilla Extract should be kept in a cool, dark place as light can affect it. No need to refrigerate.
Only use half amount compared to vanilla essence and best added once recipe is cooked as the alcohol can evaporate along with some flavour e.g. once custard has thickened and removed from heat stir in extract.
Essence usually includes a large amount of sugar in liquid form to hold the vanilla flavour in suspension. Check the ingredients label to deem if you are purchasing mainly sugar with a little bit of vanilla. Price will give you a clue as to how much vanilla is really in the product.
In cool dark place
Use twice as much essence to extract.
IMITATION VANILLA ESSENCE
Imitation vanilla essence consists of synthetic ingredients with absolutely no vanilla. The vanillin flavour and aroma (which is naturally occurring in vanilla) can be extracted from a number of sources including by products from paper manufacturing and a coal-tar derivative. Imitation essence is useful to clean out your fridge but don’t put it in your body.
In the rubbish bin.
Because vanilla is so much in demand, and because it’s so expensive, synthetics are often used instead of natural vanilla. In fact, 97% of vanilla used as a flavour and fragrance is synthetic.
Because pure vanilla contains so many other flavour and fragrance components, it has a much richer smell and taste than vanillin does by itself. Synthetic vanillin just doesn’t compare with the “real deal”.
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