A Vanilla Story

The highly processed history of a much overlooked fruit.

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 [1]. 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’  [2].

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  [1]. 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 [3]. 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 [2], 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 [2]. 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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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” [2].

Although  the curing process varies region by region, it generally takes 6–8  months and contains four steps: killing, sweating, drying, and  conditioning [2].

“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)  [3]. 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 [2].

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 [3].

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  [3].

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 [4]. 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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