1 Stick of the finest quality Vanilla Bean
Vanilla is a flavoring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla native to Mexico. Attempts to cultivate the vanilla plant outside Mexico and Central America proved futile because of the symbiotic relationship between the Tlilxochitl vine that produced the vanilla orchid and the local species of Melipona bee. It wasn’t until 1837 that Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren discovered this fact and pioneered a method of artificially pollinating the plant. Unfortunately the method proved financially unworkable and was not deployed commercially. In 1841 a 12-year-old French-owned slave by the name of Edmond Albius who lived on Île Bourbon discovered the plant could be hand pollinated allowing global cultivation of the plant.
There are currently three major cultivars of vanilla grown globally ” all derived from a species originally found in Mesoamerica including parts of modern day Mexico. The various subspecies are Vanilla planifolia (syn. V. fragrans) grown on Madagascar Réunion and other tropical areas along the Indian Ocean; V. tahitensis grown in the South Pacific; and V. pompona found in the West Indies Central and South America. The majority of the world’s vanilla is the V. planifolia variety more commonly known as “Madagascar-Bourbon” vanilla which is produced in a small region of Madagascar and in Indonesia.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron due to the extensive labor required to grow the vanilla seed pods. Despite the expense it is highly valued for its flavor described as “pure spicy ” and delicate” and its complex floral aroma depicted as a “peculiar bouquet”. Despite its high cost vanilla is widely used in both commercial and domestic baking perfume manufacture and aromatherapy.
There are three main commercial preparations of natural vanilla:
* whole pod
* powder (ground pods kept pure or blended with sugar starch or other ingredients
* extract (in alcoholic or occasionally glycerol solution both pure and imitation forms of vanilla contain at least 35% alcohol)
Vanilla flavoring in food may be achieved by adding vanilla extract or by cooking vanilla pods in the liquid preparation. A stronger aroma may be attained if the pods are split in two exposing more of a pod’s surface area to the liquid. In this case the pods’ seeds are mixed into the preparation. Natural vanilla gives a brown or yellow color to preparations depending on the concentration. Good quality vanilla has a strong aromatic flavor but food with small amounts of low quality vanilla or artificial vanilla-like flavorings are far more common ” since true vanilla is much more expensive.
A major use of vanilla is in flavoring ice cream. The most common flavor of ice cream is vanilla and thus most people consider it to be the “default” flavor. By analogy the term “vanilla” is sometimes used as a synonym for “plain”. Although vanilla is a prized flavoring agent on its own it is also used to enhance the flavor of other substances ” to which its own flavor is often complementary such as chocolate ” custard caramel coffee and others.
The food industry uses methyl and ethyl vanillin. Ethyl vanillin is more expensive but has a stronger note. Cook’s Illustrated ran several taste tests pitting vanilla against vanillin in baked goods and other applications and to the consternation of the magazine editors tasters could not differentiate the flavor of vanillin from vanilla however ” for the case of vanilla ice cream natural vanilla won out.
In old medicinal literature vanilla is described as an aphrodisiac and a remedy for fevers. These purported uses have never been scientifically proven but it has been shown that vanilla does increase levels of catecholamines (including epinephrine more commonly known as adrenaline) and as such can also be considered mildly addictive.
In an in-vitro test vanilla was able to block quorum sensing in bacteria. This is medically interesting because in many bacteria quorum sensing signals function as a switch for virulence. The microbes only become virulent when the signals indicate that they have the numbers to resist the host immune system response.
The essential oils of vanilla and vanillin are sometimes used in aromatherapy.