6 July 2008

Horticultural ardour: the allure of vanilla

It had been venerated by the Totonaca and Aztecs of Mexico for centuries before European explorers introduced it to the Old World sometime during the 16th century. Thereafter, many perished on long ocean journeys undertaken to obtain it. It is one of the world's most expensive spices, even today. So how did something as extraordinary as vanilla become a byword for the ordinary? If we want the simple, unadorned variety of something, we ask for the 'vanilla kind'. Vanilla is not so vanilla. How can the orchid spice be considered boring or commonplace? Its very name is derived from the diminutive of the word 'vagina'. I'd like those connotations to be reinstated, thank you very much. Warm, wet, sensual, exotic, erotic, heady, mysterious, sultry, complex, alluring vanilla, how you fill me with desire…

Our mistress vanilla is no cheap harlot. For a start, the very act of cultivating it constitutes a labour of love; it is agriculture of the most intensive kind. Vanilla is the only orchid cultivated on a large scale for a purpose other than decorating hotel lobbies and winning ribbons for pretty petals at flower shows. The favoured species for production is the original Vanilla planifolia from Mexico, although V. pompona from Tahiti and others are also sometimes used. It is a vining orchid genus, attaining lengths in excess of 35 m. They are typically grown supported on trees, poles or latticework, such that the flowers are within easy reach. This is essential. Almost all orchids require very specific insect pollinators in order to reproduce, and vanilla is no exception. In the wild, it seduces a rare and localized bee species, which obviously cannot be relied on for global commercial purposes. Every vanilla pod is the result of hand pollination by a plantation worker using care, diligence and a small wooden tool. New flowers open on the inflorescences at dawn, wilting by dusk. Open blooms have to be sought out in the humid plantation and pollinated every day. Quite a different exercise to just watching the corn grow. Pregnant with promise, the green bean-like seed pods are harvested about nine months after pollination, at the moment of perfect maturity just before splitting open. This is just the beginning: at this point the beautiful vanilla fragrance is entirely absent. The laborious task of curing follows.

Now for a brief chemistry interlude. The primary chemical found in vanilla extract is the phenolic compound vanillin. Notice how closely its molecular structure resembles that of adrenaline. Neurologist Alan Hirsch of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation found that vanilla induces sexual arousal: the smell alone can significantly increase blood flow to the penis. So much for Viagra, then. Synthetic vanillin can be easily synthesized from oil of cloves, lignin (a waste product from the paper industry), or more often from petrochemical precursors produced from creosote. Yummo. That's not all, folks: biotechnological advances have enabled bacteria to make it from rice bran, and Japanese scientists have recently extracted it from cow dung. These products are inferior, I feel, and certainly less romantic than obtaining vanilla from orchids and hard labour under a tropical sun. The truth is that the full, complex vanilla flavour is not only due to the presence of vanillin, but also hundreds of other, related chemical compounds. Natural vanilla's perfect balance of these molecules keeps it in high demand. Erm, where were we? Oh yes: the curing process.

In the fabled Bourbon method, the freshly harvested vanilla pods are briefly blanched in hot water to stop the ripening process. For several weeks, the pods are laid out on woolen blankets in the morning sun, wrapped up by midday and stored in airtight containers overnight. During this fevered process, enzymes are at work, liberating vanillin and friends trapped in loveless β-glycosidic linkages with sugar molecules. Maximum aroma is achieved after several months of drying and careful storage. The pods, now brown, become frosted with a white coating of fragrant phenolics. The labour of love is finally complete and the pods (now called vanilla 'beans' to the chagrin of botanists everywhere) are graded, packaged, and shipped to vendors worldwide.

As with all luxury items, the demand for natural vanilla exceeds supply. Finding good quality vanilla is sometimes difficult, especially when looking for vanilla extract - the flavouring agent produced by percolating macerated vanilla beans in alcohol. Artificial impostors abound - true vanilla extract is not clear, not dark and murky, but rather a golden amber colour. Although vanilla beans themselves cannot be faked, they do vary in quality. When choosing vanilla, opt for the longest beans you can find. They should have an oily glisten or the tell-tale frosting of vanillin crystals, and should definitely be devoid of mildew. Vanilla is now cultivated all over the world, from Mexico to Indonesia, with Madagascar and the other islands of the Indian Ocean being the biggest producers today. Local climate and cultivation methods have a definite influence on flavour development, same as any good wine. It's called terroir, and is not to be sniffed at.

Perhaps vanilla gained its reputation for mediocrity from its near-ubiquity. It is found in everything these days: cheesecake, Chanel No. 5, pound cake, aromatherapy oil, crème brûlée, fabric softener, glühwein, Kit-Kats, cough syrup, butterscotch pudding, cream soda, Yankee scented candles... oh, and ice cream, natch. We should not forget how precious it can be, how complex its composition and lengthy its production. Let vanilla regain its luxury status. After all, it's damn sexy.

Photography credits: vanilla flower ©
Brock; hand pollination © Helen Graham; grading table © Jonathan Talbot; vanilla pods © Kendiala; crème brûlée © Markii. Please visit these tremendous Flickr users for more deviant deliciousness.