Far from ‘plain’–vanilla beans denote noble luxury

Vanilla is deserving of its ranking as one of the world’s favourite aromas. Throughout history, quality beans have been in high demand–to appease the gods, to gain favour with nobility, to scent expensive perfumes,  or to flavour the finest gourmet desserts.

It is unfortunate, then, that the term  ‘plain vanilla’  has become a way to infer connotations of ‘common-place, featureless and boring’. This analogy arose after the introduction of mass-produced imitation vanilla. Being far cheaper to produce, synthetic vanillan has become the scent or flavour of choice in everything from ice-cream to cleaning agents.

But the single flavour note of chemical vanillan does not compare to the complex aroma imparted by true vanilla beans. Vanillan is just one of hundreds of chemical compounds that contribute to a vanilla bean’s full-bodied flavour profile. There is nothing plain or boring about the character and history of this luxurious spice, nor the meticulous process of developing its aroma.

Vanilla pods are the cured fruit of a climbing orchid

Vanilla is actually the name given to a genus of about 110 species in the orchid family (Orchidaceae) native to tropical and subtropical areas of Central America, Asia, New Guinea and West Africa. However not all these plants produce vanillan– the key chemical responsible for the distinct aromas used to flavour our desserts and perfumes.

Only 3 species are grown commercially for their fragrant cured fruit:

  • Vanillan planifolia – this is the predominant type grown commercially across the tropics due to its higher vanillan content. (Plump Pods variety) This species is native to wet tropical lowland forests of Mexico and Guatemala.The flavour of these beans varies with the region in which they are grown, however generally they are known for their smooth, creamy and buttery notes.
  • Vanillan tahitiensi – This species has been shown to be a cross between Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla odorata. It is proposed that it is an early Mayan cultivar from the forests of Guatemala. It is uncertain when it was first introduced to Tahiti, as there were multiple introduction events. Tahitian vanilla differs morphologically by having thinner stems, narrower leaves and shorter pods. It’s flavour tends to have more aniseed or liquorice notes created by the chemical compound heliotropin. Vanilla tahitensis is mainly cultivated in French Polynesia but is now also grown in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and other Pacific Islands.
  • Vanillan pompona is considered one of the ‘minor’ sources of commercial vanilla flavoring. This West Indian vanilla is generally considered inferior to the two other species, due to its lower productivity and vanillin content. However Vanilla pompona is more resistant to disease and it flowers more readily under cultivation than the other two domesticated species. Furthermore, despite its fruits being less abundant they are substantially larger. V.pompona may have breeding potential to produce hybrids that will be more resistant to the threats of climate-change.

The vanilla orchid is an evergreen rambling fleshy vine, climbing up trees in its native environment as an understory plant. It produces light yellow flowers that are natively (in Mexico and Guatemala) pollinated by melipona bees and possibly small honey-eaters. Long green odourless pods form in clusters, and only develop their famous scent post-harvest, during the fermentation process.

For the gods and nobility–Totonacs, Aztecs and the Spanish King

It is thought that humans probably discovered the aromatic qualities of vanilla after pods fell to the ground and fermented in the humus rich undergrowth. The first civilisation known to cultivate vanilla was the Totonac people who lived in the eastern coastal and mountainous regions of Mexico. They used it for medicinal and religious purposes, believing it was a gift from the gods.

In the 1400’s Aztecs from the Central Highlands conquered the Totonac people and discovered the pleasures of this delicious spice. The Totonac people were required to supply their Aztec rulers with a ready supply of vanilla beans.

The Aztec nobility was known to enjoy its culinary properties. They combined vanilla with cocoa and honey in a ceremonial drink called “xocolatl” (or chocolatl, thought to be the original hot chocolate).

In 1518 when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed on the Mexican Gulf Coast, he was received with hospitality by the ruling Aztec emperor: Montezuma. It is said that Montezuma shared the chocolatl drink and recipe with Cortés.

The conquistadors were delighted with the small scented pod, which they called vainilla (Spanish for ‘little pod’) and brought it back to Spain, along with cocoa. Cortés introduced vanilla to the King and Royal Court where it became a favourite with nobility. Trade began, with the Mexicans cultivating it and sending it to the European market. As its popularity grew it became a favourite to flavour food, tobacco and perfume.  Mexico remained the major producers up until the mid 19th century.

Spread of vanilla and its cultivation

Cuttings were taken to France and England in an attempt to cultivate it and disrupt the Spanish monopoly on the Vanilla trade. The climatic conditions of Europe were not suitable for the tropical orchid. The plants withered and died without setting fruit.

Vanilla plants were traded and spread across the tropics on various voyages between the Americas, Asia and Africa. In the early 1800’s cuttings of the V.planifolia variety were taken to the French colonies in Reunion and Mauritius. Initial plantings failed to set fruit due to the lack of any natural pollinators.

Hand-pollination in Madagascar–birth of an industry leader

But in 1841, Edmond Albius, a 12 year old boy enslaved by the French, developed a technique for pollinating the vanilla flowers.  Albius was a skilled gardener and understood the plant’s anatomy. He used a bevelled sliver of bamboo to pollinate the flowers–a technique still used for hand-pollinating today.

Cultivation of vanilla was then spread across the Bourbon Islands to Madagascar and the Comoros Islands. By the end of the 19th century Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros Islands were responsible for about 80 percent of world production.

Bourbon kill method

The Bourbon Islands developed their own technique for ‘killing’ the green vanilla pods, which is required to begin the curing process. Known as the Bourbon method, they plunged the beans in boiling water for up to 3 minutes. The Bourbon method is still used by most producers across the globe today, as it tends to give a soft, pliable vanilla bean.

In Mexico the tradition is to use the heat of the midday sun to kill the bean, but this is harsher than the bourbon kill and results in a woodier vanilla bean. Other methods of kill include freezing or scarification. But these methods are harder to implement on a large scale.

Global producers

Madagascar has become renowned for the quality and quantity of vanilla it produces, and still leads global production today.  Indonesia is the world’s second largest producer. With greater stability and governance in Indonesia, it is likely to overtake Madagascar as the largest global producer. Vanilla is also grown on a smaller scale by many other tropical nations located between the latitudes of 20th line North and 20th line South.

Beside Madagascar, Mexico and Indonesia, other producers of vanilla beans include:

  • Australia
  • Costa Rica
  • Fiji
  • Hawaii
  • India
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Tahiti
  • Tanzania
  • Tonga
  • Uganda
  • Vanuatu
  • China
  • Malaysia
  • And of course Sri Lanka, where Plump Pods vanilla is grown.

Unique character of a special plant

In each region the vanilla crop develops a unique terroir –an individual flavour and aroma profile based on the regions growing and curing conditions. The tropical highlands of central Sri Lanka produce vanilla beans with an aroma profile of sweet, fruity and slightly grilled cocoa.

As you can see, the word ‘vanilla’ does not deserve to be used as a less-than-endearing adjective. Like a good wine or cigar, each bean comes with a unique character and a story steeped in history and tradition. Vanilla beans, and the patient artisans who produce them, deserve our reverence and respect.  Vanilla is one of nature’s finest moments, a symbol of hedonistic pleasure and luxury.

In summary – your questions answered

What are vanilla beans?

Vanilla beans are the ripe, cured fruit of a climbing orchid native to Mexico and Guatemala.

Where do vanilla beans grow?

Vanilla beans grow in the wet tropical regions of the world between the latitudes of 20th line North and 20th line South. Vanilla prefers a hot, moist climate with frequent rain and an average temperature of 27 degrees Celsius. A short dry period is needed for flowering.

Which countries produce vanilla beans?

Major producers of vanilla beans include Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Mexico. Lesser producers include: Costa Rica, Fiji, Hawaii, India, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Tanzania, Tonga, Uganda, Vanuatu, China, and Malaysia. Boutique crops are grown in Australia, and of course Sri Lanka where Plump Pods vanilla comes from.

Why are vanilla beans so expensive?

Many factors contribute to the cost of vanilla, including the labour-intensive production methods, devastating weather events destroying crops, negative affects of climate change on growing regions, increasing global demand, and price fixing by corrupt governments and traders.

Where does the saying plain vanilla come from?

The term plain vanilla is used to infer: common-place, featureless and boring. The analogy arose after the introduction of mass-produced imitation vanilla as a scent and flavouring agent for everything from ice-cream to cleaning agents.