BOTANICAL NAME Vanilla planifolia
Vanilla is a perennial herbaceous climbing vine belonging to the orchid family (Vanilla planifolia) that can grow up to 25 metres high if left to its own devices and is a native of Central America and Mexico where the plant itself originated. It is now grown all over the world where the climate is appropriate, most notably in Reunion Island and Madagascar. In cultivation the deep trumpet-shaped flowers of the Vanilla must be hand-pollinated; while in Mexico the native humming bird and local bees do the work. The green pods or fruit are picked, cured, and the immature Vanilla pod or bean is fermented and dried to turn it into a fragrant brown vanilla bean. Whilst Vanilla is native to Mexico and The Central Americas, that part of the world accounts for only about 1% of the world's production nowdays.
Vanilla as a spice is the flavouring derived from these orchids in the genus Vanilla. The name came from the Spanish word "vainilla", meaning "little pod" Madagascar is the world's largest producer. Additional minor sources include Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitiensis (grown in Tahiti).
Vanilla is a vine in its habit and it grows by climbing over an existing tree, pole, or other support. It can be grown in a wood (on trees), in a plantation (on trees or poles), or in a "shader", in increasing orders of productivity. Left alone, it will grow as high as possible on the support, with few flowers as a consequence. As a result, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downwards every year so that the plant stays at heights accessible by a standing human. This also greatly stimulates flowering ( A good rule of thumb to promote flowering in several species in that blooms tend to be stimulated on lateral growth rather than vertical growth)
The part of the plant in which the distinctive flavoured compounds are found is the fruit, resulting from the pollination of the flower. One flower produces one fruit. Vanilla flowers are hermaphrodite meaning that they carry both male (anther) and female (stigma) organs. However, to avoid self-pollenating (which would tend to result in malformations and specific genetic deficiencies), a membrane separates those two organs. Such flowers may only be naturally pollinated by a specifically equipped bee (Meliplona) found in Mexico. Growers have tried to bring this bee into other growing locales but with no current success. The only way to produce fruits in these locales is to utilise and employ artificial pollination. A particular species of humming bird also naturally pollinates the plant.
A simple and efficient artificial pollination method was introduced in 1841 by a 12 year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion, then a French colony, in the Indian Ocean. This method is still used today. Using a bevelled sliver of bamboo, an agricultural worker folds back the membrane separating the anther and the stigma, then presses the anther on the stigma. The flower is then self-pollinated, and will produce a fruit. By performing this task using anthers and stigmas from different plants there is less of a chance of malformations in the resultant fruit. The vanilla flower lasts about one day, sometimes less, thus growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a labour-intensive task and a significant contributor to the eventual price..
The fruit (a seed pod), if left on the plant, will ripen and open at the bottom end. It will then exhaust the distinctive vanilla aroma very rapidly so is unwise for growers to allow. The fruit contains tiny black seeds, which, in ripe fruits, carry no vanilla flavour. These black seeds are the tiny black specks found in dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla.
Like other orchids, vanilla seed will not germinate without the presence of certain mycorrhizal fungi. Growers reproduce the plant by cutting: they cut sections of the vine with six or more leaf nodes, which have a root opposite each leaf. The lower two leaves are removed and this portion is covered in loose soil at the base of the support tree or post. The remaining upper roots will cling to the support and often will eventually also grow down into the soil. Growth is rapid under good conditions.
Reunion Island is famed for its vanilla and any extract or bean with the word Bourbon in its name suggests the origin of the product being from Reunion.
Vanilla is one of the most well known scents. The essential oil has a rich, sweet, earthy vanilla odour, almost alcoholic in nature, and is prized in every culture around the globe. It is widely used in the perfume industry as a fixative and distinctive base note in heavier oriental type perfumes.
In the food industry it is hard to think of a food group in which vanilla doesn't, at some stage, play a part, from ice creams and puddings to teas. It has a particular affinity with chocolate.
The beans are processed into an essential oil, an extract, a paste (usually lower grade beans that don't meet the grade in size or plumpness) or ground to a fine powder.
Its not an inexpensive spice by any means and in particular, after civil wars and reduced availability, the price of Vanilla essential oil has risen to the point of most absolutes. Nonetheless, the true oil is also recognised as being well worth the price. Pods or beans that are crisp and snap when bent are old and have been exposed to air rather than kept in a sealed environment.They are still usable but past their best. Similarly many people think that bendy pods that spring back into shape when doubled over and which have tiny little white spots on the outer casing might be too fresh or "off" - on the contrary, the white dots are concentrated vanillin crystalising on the outer pod casing and the bendiness is a sign of freshness, plumpness and lusciousness!
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Vanilla, a spice everyone should have in the cupboard but donlt save it - use it. Buy Vanilla pods and essential oil of vanilla here.
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