Vanilla has been adding flavour to baked goods and dishes for a very long time… but where does it come from you may ask?
It all starts with the bean
Did you know: vanilla comes from a plant? More specifically, an orchid? The name “Vanilla” comes for the Spanish word: “vainilla” which literally means little pod. Vanilla beans are also known as pods or “black-flowers”: after the mature bean, which shrinks and turns black (shortly after it is picked from the plant).
Vanilla originally came from Mexico. A little history lesson: it all started with the Totonaco Indians of Mexico, who were the first keepers of the secrets of vanilla. According to Totonaco mythology, the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew. A little morbid, but great story.
Vanilla plants grow in five main areas of the world. Each region creates vanilla beans with unique characteristics. Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa, is the largest producer of vanilla beans in the world and this vanilla is known as Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. It’s called this because the beans grow on the Bourbon Islands – Madagascar, Comoro, Seychelle and Reunion. Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans are considered to be the highest quality pure vanilla available, described as having a creamy, sweet, smooth, mellow flavour. Indonesia is the second largest producer of vanilla beans, with a vanilla that is woody. Madagascar and Indonesia produce 90 percent of the world’s vanilla bean crop. Mexico, where the vanilla orchid originated, now produces only a small percentage of the harvest. Mexican vanilla beans are described as creamy, sweet, smooth and spicy. Tahitian vanilla beans, which are grown from a different genus of vanilla orchid, is flowery and fruity and smooth. Last but not least is vanilla from India, now cultivating nearly 24,000 hectors of vanilla plants: they are cultivated in the southern states of India, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron, this is mostly because growing the vanilla seed pods is very labour-intensive. Despite the expense, vanilla is highly valued for its flavour. As a result, vanilla is present in baking, perfumes and many forms of aromatherapy.
There are many different shapes and forms of vanilla.
Vanilla Bean: The fruit of the vanilla orchid. Look for a dark, almost black bean with good moisture level. If you can tie it in a knot, it’s fresh.
Vanilla Extract: A flavoring prepared from vanilla beans macerated in alcohol and water.
Vanilla Paste: Pure vanilla extracts and bean seeds in simple syrup with a natural thickener. It can be used interchangeably with vanilla extract in any product where the presence of the seeds is desirable without the problem of splitting and scraping the vanilla bean.
Vanilla Powder: Made from pure vanilla extract that has been dried, or from dried beans that have been pulverized.
Vanilla Sugar: Sugar flavored by vanilla beans and used as an ingredient or decoration. To make vanilla sugar, fill a large jar with sugar, break a vanilla bean into three pieces, press them into the sugar and leave for several weeks.