Vanilla happens to be the only edible and fruit-bearing plant in the orchid family. It is one of the most common organic spices and is extensively used in a lot of industries including food, cosmetic tobacco, and pharmaceutics. There are approximately 150 varieties of organic vanilla beans but only two types are used commercially, namely Bourbon and Tahitian vanilla beans.
The insatiable demand from consumers for organic vanilla has led to a whopping 18,000 vanilla products in the market today with the price set at $300 per pound. Approximately 76 percent of organic consumers in America prefer buying organic food for their numerous health benefits. Here is a brief discussion about the rich history of organic vanilla beans.
The Origin of Vanilla
Initially, organic vanilla beans grew on the Atlantic Gulf of Mexico—from Tampico throughout the Caribbean. The early Totonac Indians who lived there were the first to discover the use of whole vanilla beans. After they were conquered by the Aztecs, they had to give up control of the prestigious vanilla fruit.
The Aztecs were then defeated by the Spanish who returned to Spain with the exotic vanilla beans which were primarily consumed by royalty and the rich. Later, its use became popular all over Europe despite still being quite expensive.
Early Use and Domestication
Vanilla was originally cultivated in customized botanical gardens in Europe but it failed to produce the precious organic vanilla beans. This changed after an enslaved boy from the island of Réunion discovered the effective hand-pollination method that is still used today which is essentially mating the reproductive parts of the flower. This method eventually worked its way to the rest of the producing regions resulting in great improvements in the production of vanilla.
Originally, it was believed that ground vanilla beans could only be used to scent perfumes. It wasn’t until much later where it was discovered that they could also use them for flavor in spices therefore increasing their popularity and widespread use. It was also incorporated in the medical field where plain vanilla was used to control bacterial infections as well.
The Distribution and Processing of Vanilla
Thomas Jefferson, being the ambassador to France, discovered the organic vanilla beans and is believed to have brought them with him to the United States. Soon after, Madagascar and Réunion islands had already begun cultivating vanilla beans and are presently the most consistent producers of bulk vanilla beans. Today, Madagascar vanilla beans constitute about 75 percent of the world’s bourbon vanilla.
Vanilla is a labor-intensive crop to produce, which is why it’s so pricey. It takes about 3 years for the flowers to appear after planting. Initially, vanilla beans once harvested were sun-dried and stored until they attained their signature aroma. Today, however, they are treated with hot water and dried until they shrink to 20% of their original size and sorted for quality. They then rest for a few weeks to complete the development of their full aroma which is quite remarkable.
The Common Types of Vanilla
Among the various types of organic vanilla beans, the most common ones are bourbon or Madagascar vanilla beans and Tahitian vanilla beans. Bourbon vanilla has typically mellow and creamy endnotes with the full aftertaste and a distinct balanced fragrance. They are perfect for almost all industrial vanilla use.
Tahitian vanilla beans significantly differ with bourbon. They have a relatively sweet taste with an explosion of initial flavor with greasy notes and are mainly used to make ice-cream and fruit yogurts. Tahitian vanilla compliments delicacies with cinnamon, chocolate, and other warm spices.
Vanilla is a long-time favorite spice for professional chefs and bakers for a good reason. Its distinct and remarkable flavor gives it a head-start over all other organic spices. Processing organic vanilla beans proves to be a tedious and time-consuming task but that is nothing compared to the value it gives back and the wide range of uses of the vanilla beans extract.