Ice. Ice. Baby.
Vanilla. One of the most ubiquitous flavours of sweet treats. From icecream to milkshakes, cakes, cocktails, rum and all sorts of desserts (Vanilla Ice) the vanilla flavour is everywhere. The flavour itself stems from the chemical called vanillin, a phenolic aldehyde, in combination with a myriad of other complex chemicals, for those with a little more chemistry behind them. Vanillin production and the complex vanilla bean flavour is the result of a series of curing and fermentation processes that occur after harvest, which we will get to later. Sadly, the synthetic production of vanillin accounts for the majority of vanilla-flavoured foods, yet any high quality ice creams or meals from good restaurants will still use real vanilla bean (beans cost about $5 a piece!).
The vanilla taste is often synonymous with plain or simple, however the process of growing vanilla is anything but.
(Not so) Fun Fact #1: Every single flower must be pollinated (taking the pollen from the anther and spreading it on the female reproductive organs called the stigma) by hand, using a matchstick!
The vanilla bean plant is an orchid, grown in tropical climates, such as Cairns and Port Douglas in Queensland or in tropical greenhouses and tropical areas around the world – Central America and the Caribbean, Tahiti, Tonga and other Indian Ocean islands. There are four main cultivars (or types) grown with the most common being V. planifolia.
Most are grown on tree trunks, wooden/concrete poles in shade clothed areas. The soil usually has very high organic matter, a loamy texture and a pH of around 5.3. Like a number of other orchids, mulch is essential.
Fun Fact #2: There is only one type of bee in the world, existing only in Mexico, that can naturally pollinate vanilla flowers.
All current cultivars stem from what is the modern day Mexico, or previously the realm of the Aztecs, and specifically the Totonac tribe. A lovely conquistador known as Herman Cortez smelled a ‘royal beverage of vanilla bean chocolate’ that piqued his culinary senses and whet his appetite for delightful Central and South American delicacies. Upon returning from the New World, Cortex brought cocoa and vanilla bean along with the gold, silver and jewels so kindly donated by Emperor Montezuma. Probably not the most vanilla transaction, that’s for sure.
The plant is usually grown from cuttings of a certain size and leaf number. The seeds need very specific fungi to make them germinate (this plant is super fussy for sure). Temperatures need to be between 15-30C in the day and 15-20C at night, certainly doesn’t like cold feet either. It likes to be read bedtime stories and played music prior to germination, otherwise it just dies. But seriously this next part required for bean production is incredible:
- Vanilla flowers only open once.
- Vanilla flowers are open for only a few hours at a time.
- Vanilla flowers must be manually pollinated with a toothpick.
Essentially, a vanilla farmer must check every single plant everyday during the flowering period so that not a single flower is missed. The bee endemic to Mexico, and the only known or practical pollinator achieves, at best, 10-20% pollination rates. The reason for this very picky nature of the plant, is that the flower is hermaphroditic, with a thin membrane separating the male and female reproductive organs. Wheat is also hermaphroditic or self-pollinating but the pollen is easily transferable between organs so this is a non-issue.
Once this incredible feat has been achieved, beans take 8-9 months (same gestation period as a human) to become ripe for harvest. Similarly, beans are about as fussy as infants and each bean has its own ripening timeframe (another similarity with humans?), irrespective of other beans on the plant (I feel like I matured faster than my brother). As a result, the vanilla farmer must check each plant, every day during the harvest period. Ripeness is indicated by a slight yellowing of one end of the bean.
Once harvest is completed, the vanillin must be developed through a curing process consisting of four steps: killing, sweating, slow-drying and conditioning.
- Killing – the aim of the first step is to disrupt the cellular processes occurring within the bean and to begin other enzymatic reactions responsible for vanillin production. Boiling, freezing, intense heat or direct sunlight is the usual weapon of choice.
- Sweating – the beans are maintained at 45-65C for 7-10 days (the length differs between growers) in high humidity. This is where they get the known black appearance. Beans must be checked many times over to ensure none are mouldy. Mouldy beans can destroy entire batches of the bean.
- Drying – usually air dried with intermittent exposure to the sun. Once the bean has reached a certain moisture content (measured by individually feeling every bean, though usually 25-35%) through the drying process, the vanilla flavour is locked within the pod.
- Conditioning – just in case you hadn’t tested your patience enough, the bean is then conditioned in enclosed boxes, in cool, dark areas for up to 18 months to develop the fragrance and intensify the complexity of flavours.
And that is the process of vanilla bean production! One of the most labour intensive production systems around (saffron would be similar). The bean can be used a number of ways – the seeds, whole bean or ground up components are all used for their slightly different vanilla tones.
So next time you’re enjoying that vanilla ice cream, be very grateful someone isolated the vanillin compound and it is now produced for everyone to enjoy. But when you do have the real deal, appreciate the amount of time and effort that has gone into making just one bean for your meal and enjoy that incredibly complex, natural flavour!
If you’re interested in finding out more about the Australian vanilla industry, check out this Landline report from a few years ago.