Vanilla enjoys worldwide prominence as a flavoring for confectionary and other sweets. Ice cream, soft drinks, puddings, cakes, and cookies are all scented and flavored with vanilla. Contemporary chefs have also conferred honors on vanilla in savory dishes, using its warmth to enhance seafood, sauces like beurre blanc, and even vegetables such as green beans amandine. Try vanilla in one of these delicious recipes.
Anything but plain, vanilla is derived from the dried, cured fruit pods of the climbing perennial vine, Vanilla planifolia. Vanilla is one of 10,000 members of the orchid family, but the only one yielding an edible fruit. The pods, also called vanilla beans, have little flavor at harvest. A five-month, labor-intensive fermentation and curing process is required to develop the warm, fruity, sweet, floral, spicy flavor of true vanilla. Vanilla is available as whole dried beans and as liquid extract.
The vanilla vine requires a small live tree for support and light shade. The plant is propagated from cuttings from an existing vine. Young plants require three years to mature before they are ready to produce beans of any quantity. Once a vine is mature, and prior to the onset of the monsoon period, it grows a fruit-bearing runner that usually has three or four brackets that develop individual flowers - a few per day per vine - in the early morning. It is critical that farmers hand-pollinate each flower on the morning it appears, as the flowers wilt and fall off that same afternoon.
Nature originally intended for a special, tiny bee – called the Melipone Bee – in Central America and Mexico to do this job. However, when vanilla was exported to other growing countries, no local insect inherited this important task! Finally, a Belgian botanist discovered the pollination deficiency in the early 1800s, and the hand-pollination process was born. Once a flower is pollinated, it takes seven to nine months for a bean to develop and reach full maturity.
Equally important as proper growing of vanilla beans is how they are cured to bring out their full flavor. Curing is a manual process that began in the early 1900's. The mature green beans are picked and, within a short period of time, placed in boiling water for three minutes to arrest growth. Then, they are sweated in burlap-wrapped piles or wooden boxes for three days, which continues the curing process. After that, the beans are sun dried for two to three months, during which time the farmers bring the beans outside each morning and spread them on pieces of burlap to soak up the sun’s direct rays. Each afternoon, the beans are wrapped and returned inside for the night.
The final stage is allowing the beans to further cure in wax-lined wooden boxes, which brings out their full flavor. The end result is a rich, dark brown, moist, and pliable bean that is loaded with aroma and flavor.
When the Spanish explorer Cortés landed in Mexico, he encountered an Aztec beverage called xoco-latl that paired cocoa beans and vanilla. Extolling its magical powers, he carried the drink back to his homeland. Chocolate and vanilla remained a daring duo in Europe until an apothecary in Elizabethan England decided that vanilla tasted pretty good on its own. Mexico is the only country where vanilla is pollinated naturally by bees. Everywhere else, it must be pollinated by the human hand.
Add to Beverages
For richer flavor and enticing aroma, add 1/4 teaspoon to one cup coffee, hot chocolate or tea.