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All About Vanilla

Sometimes vanilla gets a bad rap. Considered by many to be a bland flavor, it’s often a term used to describe something that’s rather ordinary and lacking of imagination. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Vanilla, as a matter of fact, is the most popular flavor in the world and it’s far from simple. Experts will tell you that vanilla has a complex flavor and aroma and that it takes months of careful, proper cultivation to produce the vanilla that we so readily find on our supermarket shelves. The second most expensive spice in the world (saffron is the most expensive), vanilla is used not only in a host of recipes, from desserts to main dishes, but also to enhance perfumes and other products that require its heavenly aroma.

Vanilla originated with the Aztecs in Mexico. It comes from a beautiful orchid that was originally cultivated by the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican peoples. It was brought to Europe in the 1520s (along with chocolate) by Hernando Cortez and the Spanish Conquistadors.

The word “vanilla” comes from the Spanish word “vainilla”, which means little pods and refers to the vanilla beans that grow on the plant. However, the Spanish who brought the orchids to their country soon discovered they were unable to cultivate them there because the country lacked the presence of the Melipona bee, the only bee that could pollinate the plant. While it grew readily in some European equatorial colonies, like Indonesia and Reunion Island (off the coast of Madagascar), it wasn’t until the 1800s that the connection was made between the bee and the plant and the problem was discovered.

In 1841, a 12-year-old slave from Reunion Island was credited with discovering a way to hand-pollinate the flowers and hence began the rise of the vanilla industry.

Varieties of Vanilla

Vanilla is the only edible product that comes from the orchid plant. There are about 150 vanilla orchids grown throughout the world but there are just two varieties that are used commercially for the production of vanilla – Bourbon and Tahitian. Bourbon vanilla is the offspring of the original vanilla plants found in Mexico, but today that country only produces small amounts of vanilla. Most of the bourbon vanilla is produced in Madagascar and Reunion. Small amounts also come from India, Indonesia, and China. Tahitian vanilla is from orchids grown in Tahiti and Papua New Guinea. Each has different uses and boasts a different flavor.

o Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla – This vanilla has nothing to do the liquor bourbon. Rather, Ile de Bourbon was the former name of Reunion island. The islands in the Indian Ocean produce about 75 percent of the world’s supply of vanilla. Bourbon vanilla has a rich taste and aroma and is the vanilla used in common foods we enjoy, like vanilla ice cream, and is what is found in the extract we buy at the store. It can also be used in cold foods as well as cooked recipes such as cakes or even compotes or sauces.

o Tahitian Vanilla – This type of vanilla has a sweeter and fruitier taste than bourbon vanilla. It has a bit of a floral scent as well and you may be able to taste a cherry flavor in this vanilla. It is more often used in cooked foods, like sauces, than in cold foods.

o Mexican Vanilla – Though Mexico is no longer a top producer of vanilla, that which is cultivated there is of very good quality. It is described as smooth and creamy with a distinct fruity aroma. It is ideal for cold recipes but can be used in hot recipes where cooking time is short.

o Indonesian Vanilla – Experts say that the harvesting process for vanilla in Indonesia is not consistent from farmer to farmer, so the quality of the vanilla imported from this country varies, so some are deep and rich-flavored while others are fruity. They are best used in cooked foods.

o West Indian Vanilla – This vanilla is rarely used in foods because of its poor quality but, instead, is used in large quantities by the perfume industry and any other industry – like candle-making – that uses vanilla scents.