Spicing Up Your Life: Vanilla

I don't know about you, but for most of my life, I have taken vanilla for granted.  It's a part of almost any sweet recipe from cookies to cakes to chocolates and oh so much more.  In researching this beautiful and aromatic addition to the kitchen, we learned some very interesting things.

Vanilla is native orchid to Mexico and until the mid 19th century, Mexico was the main supplier of vanilla. In 1819, vanilla beans were taken to the islands of Reúnion and Mauritius (best known for dodo birds) in hopes of producing vanilla there.  These islands are located in the Indian Ocean off the African coast.  They were not able to grow crops there because the vanilla couldn’t be properly pollinated.  The only insect capable of pollinating the blossom is a bee called the Melipona and it is native to only Mexico.  So you can see that they had a challenge on their hands.  But in 1841 a twelve year old French slave discovered that the plant could be pollinated by hand and this allowed for the global cultivation of the plant. Pollination is important to these plants because without pollination the blossom wilts and falls. Each plant must be hand-pollinated within twelve hours of opening. Today, all vanilla is pollinated by hand. A healthy vanilla vine can produce between 50-100 beans per year. The actual vanilla vine can stay productive for between 12-14 years.

Mexico is no longer the major supplier of vanilla, Madagascar is. There are four main types of vanilla: Madagascar Bourbon, Tahitian (fruity), Mexican (spicy), and West Indian vanilla. The flavor of real vanilla is made up of 250 organic components making it a complex and wonderful thing.  Vanilla is the second most expensive spice because of the extensive labor required to grow it. It is also highly valued for its flavor. Even though it is a very expensive ingredient, vanilla is widely used for both commercial and domestic baking, perfume, and aromatherapy.

In my personal opinion, real vanilla is the only way to go, but there is a large market for artificial vanilla as well.  However, when I found out that it is often made from either guaiacol or from lignin, a component of wood which is a byproduct of the pulp industry, my choice was forever made.  And really, there is no comparison when it comes to flavor.  Go with real vanilla beans or extract.

I was thinking that maybe I should make my own vanilla extract, because it would a cool experiment… but I found that you need 6 vanilla beans per 1 cup of alcohol to make real vanilla extract.  Seems to me it’s simpler and less expensive to buy it.

So, go out and get some really good vanilla extract today and make sure you use it in the pavlova recipe for Easter!