I know that a lot of people think of vanilla as a flavoring, without giving a second thought to where it comes from. Since the vast majority of people who cook with it cook with the extract, most people have never actually worked with a vanilla "bean," let alone that it is a gift from the New World.
What exactly is Vanilla?? Well it a fragrant pod of the world's only known fruiting orchid. It is native, in BIG way to Mexico. Conqueror Hernan Cortez is credited with first introducing the tasty "beans" to Europe in the 1520's. It was assumed that, like most of the other New World foods transported back to Europe, and thence to points beyond that were really easy to grow anywhere, that vanilla would be just as easy. Not so! The orchid that produces vanilla pods has such a strong symbiotic relationship with it's native environment, that it was not until 1837 that a Botanist from Belgium named Francios Antione Morren figured out how to get the plant to flower and produce pods outside of the it's Native land. The reason for this is that the vine that produces the vanilla orchid, called (again) is Aztec Nahuatl tlilxochitl is completely dependent on the Melipona Bee that is also native to Mexico (this is the same stingless bee that the Mayans domesticated as a regular source of honey, that was a really big part of their diets in Classic times). This bee, and this bee alone is the only insect that aids in pollination of the orchid. BTY: Tlilxochitl means "black flower," which remains one of the modern Nahuatl words for vanilla, although the term is a bit of a mystery since vanilla flowers are cream colored to white--perhaps it is a term describing the pods that it produces??
The story of the vanilla's slow travel around the globe then picks up. The big story behind it's finally growing in foreign lands comes from a small and humble source. A little 12 year slave boy by the name of Edmond Albius who lived on the French occupied island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Africa, figured out how to hand pollinate the flowers, and produced the first real economically viable crop of vanilla pods outside of it's native environment. From there vanilla traveled through lands that were claimed by the French, including the Polynesian homeland of Tahiti. Today it is grown on most of the islands off the coast of Africa, including Reunion and the large country of Madagascar, in the South Pacific and Indonesia, in addition to it's spread into South American and the island of the Caribbean.
Today, vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, in just behind true Saffron. The United States sports only one Vanilla farm, which is found on the Big Island of Hawai'i. The Hawaiian Vanilla Co. was founded in 1989, the compound offers tours and a menu based completely on vanilla. They also have a gift shop that features all manner of vanilla scented items from tea to candles. If this is the modern history of vanilla, it's earliest cultivation is also of interest. The Totonac people of Veracruz were the very first people to cultivate and mass produce vanilla, and when they were under Aztec rule, Vanilla pods, along with their Chipotle chile (smoked Jalapenos) and fresh red Jalapenos (also native the region) were the main form of taxes paid to the empire. In fact, up until little Edmond figured out how to hand pollinate vanilla, the Totonacs were the world only source of the tasty pods up until the end of the 19th century. T heir story of how vanilla came to be is a bit similar to the story of Maní from South America. The story follows that a young woman fell in love with a young man, this young woman was a princess no less. Princess Xanat fled with her lover to the forest where they were captured and beheaded. Where ever their blood hit the ground, the podded orchid sprung up in growth.
Today the vast majority of vanilla that is used and consumed comes in the form of an extract. Although, with world wide vanilla production at an all time high and with plantations that are healthy, more and more people are able to afford to buy the vanilla beans themselves for home use. They may be used more than once if not split. Vanilla is also sold in powdered form and has become all the rage in upscale restaurants who have become obsessed with "dusting" finished dishes with different types of powder (another example is the use of truffle powder in this manner). Some gourmet shops and vendors also sell vanilla sugar, but this can easily be made at home for half the price. Much less common, vanilla paste is also sold in much smaller quantities than any other commercially available vanilla flavorings.
|Extract from the Hawaiian Vanilla Co.|
Th popularity of the flavor, and it's expense, has led to a hunt for sources are other vanilla flavorings. Artificial vanilla is made from lignin a natural polymer found in wood, and is actually made from pulp that is the by product of paper making, if you can believe that! It produces the characteristic "Vanillin" flavoring that is most associated with real vanilla on the taste buds; but to illustrate how complex the real thing is, vanillin is only one of 171 identifiable aromatics found in real vanilla.
|Vanilla Paste & Vanilla Powder|
OK, now this next part is just plain weird...a gross if you ask me. In the U.S. a compound called "CastoreumCastoreum is described as being "a exudate of the castor sacs of mature beavers." Yummy....
|Fresh Vanilla Pods with Dried Cured Pods|
|A sampler of modern foods prepared with vanilla|
In modern cuisine, vanilla is gaining popularity as an ingredient in savory dishes. Those 171 aromatics mentioned earlier it turns out have a great affinity with non-sweet or dessert dishes. In fact it has be discovered that vanilla is a flavor enhancer on the the same level as MSG, jut without all the bad press. Native groups have known this for some time as a popular way to use vanilla extract in the native kitchen is to toss it into a skillet full of corn and peppers; on northern areas is also pairs with corn and walnut. It is also featured in some versions of the traditional pumpkin soup. I've seen recipes that call for a little vanilla in Cole Slaw dressing. It is an old and well known home flavoring for vodka. And it is said to have a real affinity with, of all things: seafood Vanilla based sauces sometimes accompany grilled prawns in the south Pacific and I have a recipe for Lobster with Vanilla Mayonnaise. In Tahiti it is used with seared scallops--as a vanilla dust rub. One restaurant in Bora Bora features a well seared fish dish with local vegetables and and Vanilla Coconut Sauce with arrives at the table in a test tube! The Kai Restaurant at the Casino on Gila River Indian Reservation (home to the Gila River Akimel O'Oodham (Pima) & Pee Posh (Maricopa) people), features an all round marinade for game and wild fowl named for the people on the land: Pima Citrus-Vanilla Juice Marinade. So the old is new again with this New World ingredient.
Below is video of the painstaking process of hand pollinating vanilla.