Vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world and also one of the most delicious. Here's everything you need to know about these delicious plants.
Vanilla is a versatile and flavorful spice. In today's food industry, it is hard to imagine a world without it.
What is Vanilla?
Vanilla is a climber and belongs to the orchid genus. It can grow up to ten meters long and has more than 100 species, but only a few varieties are really interesting for spice production.
Vanilla's pale yellow flowers develop after about five-years. The elongated fruit capsules, which are usually referred to as "vanilla beans" are of course not actually beans. The plants were originally native to Central America and the Caribbean, and they are also grown in Africa and in Southeast Asia.
The History of Vanilla
The ancient Aztecs used vanilla as a spice and as a tribute gift to their rulers. It was also used to flavour cocoa.
After the Europeans arrived in South America, it still took decades for vanilla to be used in Europe. At the time only the rich could afford vanilla, because vanilla was very expensive.
The reason that vanilla was so expensive was Spain strictly guarded its monopoly on the spice. The illegal export of vanilla plants was punishable by death. Only with Mexico's independence in 1810 did the plants make it to other parts of the world. However, since hummingbirds are the natural pollinators of vanilla plants, plants that live outside of their native regions must be pollinated by hand.
Vanilla plants today are grown in plantations on poles. The pods are harvested after they reach 30 cm long and are nearing maturity. At this time they are still yellow-green. After harvesting, an elaborate steam process begins. For this purpose, the pods are treated with hot water or steam and then stored in airtight containers, where they ferment slowly over a period of four weeks.
During this process, the chemical precursors to vanillin are converted. The final product, the black-brown, leathery vanilla beans that emerge have an incomparable flavor.
Due to the very complex manufacturing process and the manual pollination, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world. Its price is always subject to strong fluctuations.
Besides cinnamon, vanilla is the most frequently used spice for desserts. Vanilla flavors cocoa, chocolates, desserts, bakery products and ice cream. One even finds vanilla in sausages. Thanks to its mildness it is also excellent with fish and white meat. Because of this versatility, it is of great importance for the food industry.
There is not enough vanilla grown in the world in order to meet the demand. This means that a lot of the vanillin today is artificial, made of cheap wood waste generated by the paper industry. Synthetically produced vanillin cannot compete with real vanilla, because the plant still contains a variety of other flavors.
Incidentally, vanilla is considered to have a positive influence on your mood and could even help with fatigue and anxiety. Try it out!