Incredible South American Flower

Vanilla beans are the fruit of a climbing orchid indigenous to Mexico and Central America. They have been harvested in Mexico for centuries, and the Aztecs used vanilla to flavor a chocolate drink. It was only several centuries later that the vines were first grown successfully (see below regarding pollination methods) on the Bourbon Islands, east of southern Africa, most notably Réunion, Madagascar, and Cormoro. Production on Tahiti also began in the 1800s, but Tahitian vanilla is a different species; it is actually a cross between Vanilla planfolia and V. fragrans. Today, Mexico, Madagascar, Tahiti, and Indonesia are the main producers, but the quality of Indonesian vanilla can vary and it is often considered inferior.

Efforts to grow vanilla in countries other than Mexico were unsuccessful until it was discovered that there the flowers were pollinated by tiny bees of the genus Melipona and that the flowers could be pollinated by hand elsewhere. Hand-pollination is only the beginning of the arduous process that results in the seductively fragrant beans we know. The pods are harvested when unripe and still green; when the very tips have begun to turn yellow, they are ready. The pods do not all reach that stage at the same time, so the harvest can extend over a month or more. In Mexico, the green pods are heated in ovens for 24 to 48 hours to begin the curing process; on the Bourbon Islands, they are blanched in boiling water instead. Then the beans are spread out in the sun every morning to dry and at the end of each day are packed into boxes or other containers to sweat overnight. Finally—the entire process can take up to six months—they are stored for a period of time until they are dark brown or black and intensely aromatic. In Tahiti, the pods are picked when mature and dried in a cool place for a week or so, at which point they are rinsed and then subjected to a similar curing process, drying under the sun for much of the day and wrapped and sweated overnight, for up to a month. Then they are stored for two to three months longer to further develop the flavor.

Good vanilla beans are deep brown, plump, flexible, and very aromatic, with a sweet, mellow, floral fragrance. Some pods are covered with white crystals, which is not a bad thing—these are crystallized vanillin, the main flavor component of vanilla. Inside the pod is a sticky pulp composed of hundreds of tiny seeds. For the most flavor, vanilla beans are split before they are added to the liquid they will simmer in and infuse; sometimes the seeds are scraped out and used on their own, or both the pod and seeds may be added (the tiny black specks in high-quality vanilla ice cream are the seeds, which are not strained out; similarly, you may see the tiny seeds at the bottom of a ramekin of crème brûlée). When buying vanilla extract, avoid artificial vanilla at all costs—it has nothing of the flavor of the true extract. Vanilla paste is now also available from specialty producers. It is essentially vanilla seeds in a sweet vanilla syrup and is very fragrant; it can be substituted in the same quantity in any recipe that calls for vanilla extract. All three products should be stored in a cool, dark place; vanilla beans can be stored, well wrapped, in the freezer to keep them fresher and more aromatic.

Vanilla is widely used in cookies and cakes and other desserts, of course—from custard and gelato to poached fruit to chocolates—but it also works in some savory preparations. Lobster in vanilla sauce was one of renowned French chef Alain Senderens’s signature dishes in the 1980s, and it has been much copied; other chefs have served sweetbreads or veal in a vanilla sauce.