Botanical name Vanilla planifolia ▪ Family name Orchidaceae
Vanilla is the fruit of a perennial, climbing orchid and it is the second most expensive spice after saffron because, like saffron, its production is very labour-intensive. Although many attempts were made to introduce the plant elsewhere, vanilla remained exclusive to Mexico and the surrounding region until the 19th century. Vanilla flowers open for only one day and are naturally pollinated by the melipona bee and a particularly long-beaked species of hummingbird, both native to Central America which explained the lack of success in propagation elsewhere. Pollination of the plants in other regions where it is now grown successfully has to be done by hand.
Native range Central America
Major producers Mexico, Madagascar, India, Tahiti, Indonesia, Uganda, West Indies
Harvesting Vanilla pods are harvested when they begin to turn yellow. Further maturation is prevented by plunging them into boiling water. The pods then undergo a long curing process involving controlled heating, drying, and long storage during which the pods shrink to about 20% of their original weight and acquire a dark colour. During this process, enzymes cause a chemical change that produces aromatic compounds, notably vanillin.
Taste and aroma Fresh vanilla pods have no aroma or taste. After fermentation they develop a rich, mellow, intensely perfumed aroma with hints of liquorice. The flavour is delicate and sweetly fruity or creamy, occasionally with hints of raisin or prune.
Culinary uses Vanilla is used almost exclusively in sweet dishes and is a common ingredient in cakes, biscuits, and desserts. Whole or split pods can be used to flavour creams, custards, and ice cream. A whole vanilla pod that has been infused in a syrup or cream can be rinsed, dried, and reused.
Other uses Vanilla is used as a pick-me-up and an antidote to fevers. It is also attributed with aphrodisiac qualities, and is used in perfume production. Vanilla is one of the distinctive ingredients in the liqueurs Crème de Cacao and Galliano.
Historical uses It is not known when vanilla was first cured and used as a flavour, but the Aztecs had been fermenting the bean-like fruits to extract vanillin crystals many centuries before the Spanish first set foot in Central America in 1520. The Spanish conquistadors drank chocolate flavoured with vanilla at the court of Moctezuma and took it back to Spain.
Storage Stored away from light in an airtight container, vanilla pods will keep for 2 years or more.
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