A Vanilla Story
The highly processed history of a much overlooked fruit
When something is plain and boring, we call it vanilla. “Vanilla ice cream”, we say, and think of the “default flavour”: a bit dull, and nothing too exciting. “Vanilla software”, we say, referring to the standard computing system: nothing too flashy, just the basic version without any bells and whistles.
Or, if you’re a follower of England’s royal family, you may remember when Prince Charles’s not-so-popular girlfriend Camilla was nicknamed “Plain Vanilla Camilla”, which was not meant as a compliment. Vanilla has somehow come to represent the ordinary and bland.
For a flavour we take for granted, vanilla has somehow been incorporated into so many different types of food — from ice cream and yoghurt, to soft-drinks and coffee. Vanilla isn’t even exclusive to foods: it’s found in scents, soaps, and perfumes.
But while vanilla has infiltrated so many parts of life, what do you really know about it? Do you know, for instance, about the labour-intensive cultivation it requires? Or that its pods are harvested from a flowering orchid?
So often, there is a disconnect between the food we eat and where it comes from. Even though most people buy products scented with vanilla, they may not realise that vanilla comes from a bean or pod. In fact, it usually doesn’t. The “vanilla essence” so common nowadays is not made from vanilla at all, but synthesised from things like wood pulp as a byproduct of paper-making.
Clearly, it’s time to review the history of vanilla.
Imagine yourself in Mexico, in the 1520s. Hernando Cortés, the Spanish Conquistador, has just landed on the shores of the Aztec Empire.
Despite what the Spanish of the time said, the Aztecs were a very advanced civilisation. The so-called “empire” was made up of many different kinds of people living together, and are still known for their famously detailed astronomical observations. What you may not know is that they also had their own philosophy, which is written down in several volumes of the Aztec codex. And, they had long been using the fruit of a small, yellow-flowered orchid to enhance their drinks.
There are a hundred and ten species of vanilla orchid, but only one of them, Vanilla planifolia, produces enough aroma to be economically significant . Originally native to Mexico, the vanilla orchid grows best in tropical climates where it’s warm and moist.
When Cortés the Conquistador landed, he was greeted by Aztec emperor Montezuma with a drink of ‘xocolatl’. That’s essentially an Aztec version of hot chocolate, where vanilla is blended with ground cocoa and honey. Cortés had never tasted vanilla before, he was very curious about the drink’s secret ingredient. Excited about the new spice, Cortes returned to Spain with the first vanilla beans. Although originally known as ‘tlilxochitl’ by the Aztecs, the French renamed it ‘vaynilla’ .
Interestingly, the French didn’t incorporate vanilla in drinks. Instead, they used it predominantly for chocolate manufacturing.
When the Aztecs gave the Spanish explorers their first taste of vanilla, Cortés was eager to bring some of the orchids back to grow in France. Remember this was around 1520, but it wouldn’t be until 1836 that the vanilla orchid would successfully bear vanilla beans outside of Mexico . Although some of the orchids would flourish and bloom, a day later they would be wilted. No vanilla pods ever formed.
Vanilla flowers are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both the male and female components. But they can’t fertilise themselves, because of a stamen cap that encloses the pollen . The structure of the flower makes self-pollination nearly impossible.
What people didn’t realize was that vanilla’s only natural pollinators, the stingless Melipona bees and a certain local hummingbird , were native to and found only in Mexico. With no creatures naturally pollinating the orchid flowers, no vanilla beans would ever emerge.
Even today, cultivating and harvesting vanilla beans is not an easy task. You have to wait a few years for the plant to mature — no vanilla beans until then! After waiting two-three years, the plant will finally put out its small, yellow buds which later bloom into flowers.
But once the wait is over, you have to be quick. When the small flowers do appear, they’ll bloom for less than 24 hours.
That means natural pollinators only have about a day to reach newly bloomed flowers: a very inefficient process. If orchid pollination was left to only natural pollinators, about 1% of vanilla orchids would get pollinated . That’s not enough beans to harvest a large crop, so additional methods had to be invented as the demand for vanilla increased.
With most of the world still struggling to produce vanilla beans, a Belgian botanist by the name of Charles Moren took a trip to Mexico. He wanted to investigate the orchids in their native habitat.
During his trip, Moren realized the bees were the key to pollinating the orchids and growing beans. But that didn’t mean he had to give up. On returning home, he developed the first method of hand-pollinating the vanilla orchids . Moren’s method successfully produced vanilla beans, but it was slow and painstaking; impossible to perform on a farm-like scale. The method was never truly popularised.
Pollination isn’t the only problem though. When vanilla beans are fully developed, they still have to go through a long “curing” process before they’re ready to use.
On their own, mature vanilla beans are greenish-yellow, and their aroma is actually a bit unpleasant . Not at all like the characteristic “vanilla scent” and dark-brown colour we associate with vanilla products from the store! The key is a process known as curing, which encompasses many different chemical and enzymatic reactions — basically, the beans are thoroughly processed so they can get the desired colour, flavour, and aroma compounds we all know in our minds as “vanilla” .
Although the curing process varies region by region, it generally takes 6–8 months and contains four steps: killing, sweating, drying, and conditioning .
“Killing” simply refers to the physiological death of the bean. They need to stop living before they can be processed. Typically, they’re exposed to hot water for scalding, or heated in an oven. This destroy beans’ cellular structure, releasing substrates that’ll be used by various enzymes to make flavour and aroma compounds.
After the “killing,” all physiological functions of the vanilla beans stop. Now they need to be “sweated” to get the right texture and pliability.
Sweating usually takes a bit more than a week. The beans are laid out in the sun for half of the day, then covered by woollen blankets for the rest. Alternatively, beans can be heated in an oven at 45°C (that’s 113°F) . During this step the bean’s enzymes are busy oxidizing and reacting with precursor molecules, to form new chocolate brown colour and flavour compounds. Once beans have the right flexibility — not too bendy, not too stiff — it means the sweating step is done.
After sweating, the beans still have about two-thirds of their moisture. To get rid of that water, beans are sent through a slow drying step, just above room temperature. Driving off more moisture is critical to stop microbes from spoiling the beans, as well as preventing undesirable chemical and biochemical interactions.
Once a water content of 25% is reached, the drying step is done, and it’s time to send them for conditioning .
Five years after Charles Moren’s failed invention, on the small French island of Réunion, a 12-year-old slave by the name of Edmond Albius was about to burst the vanilla market wide open.
Albius’ master was fascinated by plants, and showed Albius his vanilla orchid that always flowered but never bore fruit. Albius had previously worked on a watermelon plantation where the plants required hand-fertilization, so he examined the orchid for its female and male parts. He realised a small cap prevented self-pollination, and came up with a simple DIY method to circumvent it.
Use a tiny bamboo stick, about the size of a toothpick, to remove the barrier cap from the plant. Then, the male and female parts can be brought into contact. Let the fertilisation begin!
Albius’ hand-pollination system was the first practical method that could be done on a large-scale. Using the young boy’s technique, it’s possible to hand pollinate up to two thousand flowers a day [2–4].
Today, manually pollinating every vanilla orchid using a tiny bamboo stick is still the main method used for farming vanilla beans, making it extremely labour-intensive. What’s more, within the short 24-hour period that a vanilla orchid is blooming, artificial pollination needs to occur between 8 and 11 in the morning to result in fertilisation and fruiting. About 10–12 months after fertilization, the vanilla beans will be fully matured and can be harvested by hand .
If pollinating is a brief, rushed process, conditioning is a long, slow, month-long wait. And what’s more, it’s anything but standardised.
This is the last step of processing after the vanilla beans are dried. They get transferred into closed boxes and stored for one to three months. This is when fermentation happens, rounding off the already complex flavours and odours that have been developed. But that’s just the basic way of conditioning; the “vanilla” method if you like. Different regions usually have variations on this.
Mexico, for example, goes by the the “sun” method. Beans are first placed in sheds, then moved to mahogany sweating boxes. They go back and forth several times, over a period of 2–3 weeks. Once that’s done, they move on to their 2–3 month stay in ageing boxes.
The Madagascar or Bourbon method begins by dipping vanilla beans in hot water for ten minutes, then laying them out on blankets. Overnight, the blankets are rolled up to allow for fermentation. This process is repeated for up to ten days, after which the beans are transferred to large trays and further dehydrated in the sun for an additional month .
Regardless of the specifics, at the end of conditioning, vanilla pods are ready to be packed up and shipped away.
Vanilla is one of the priciest spices, due to the labour-intensity of manually pollinating each flower, and the long curing process before any profit is recovered. The only spice consistently more expensive than vanilla is saffron.
With more than 170 aromatic compounds comprising the flavour of the vanilla bean, a synthetic match has been hard to devise. Although the molecule “vanillin” makes up a third of the flavour, the supporting aromatic molecules that round out the characteristic “vanilla” are still a bit of a mystery . That’s why the “vanilla essence” you get on the market, where vanillin is artificially synthesised, never reaches the full roundedness of original vanilla.
For a flavour we often take for granted, consider uninteresting, or outright ignore, vanilla is actually quite a complex product. For hundreds of years, people frantically tried to grow vanilla beans back in their homelands with absolutely no luck. It wasn’t until 1841, when a young slave’s intellectual prowess led to the first viable method of artificial pollination, that vanilla production could occur on a large-scale. It’s probably Edmond Albius’ advancement alone that allowed the vanilla industry to explode into the popularity it still has today.
Most of us are extremely familiar with vanilla flavouring — whether it be in food, perfume, or soaps. Vanilla is universal.
What most of us don’t think about is the sweat, energy, and care that must be taken to grow the vanilla orchids and cure their beans. Any misstep during this time-consuming process, and you’d get a spoiled or off-flavoured final product. For a flavour we consider simple, the cultivation and ageing process is really quite the opposite.
So the next time you eat vanilla ice cream, or drink your vanilla coffee, take a moment to consider all the labour that went into producing that complex spice. Vanilla is not so “vanilla” after all.
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