Vanilla comes from Mexico. In the 16th century, the Conquistadores discovered it at the same time as cocoa because the Aztecs used it to flavor their ritual drink, hot chocolate.
They took pods to Europe, but all attempts at growing it failed. Even later attempts, at the time of Louis XIV, on the Île Bourbon (now Réunion), failed. It took a long time before anyone realized that the flowers of the vanilla orchid were, in Mexico, pollinated by specific bees that only existed in that country. As a result, until the 19th century, all vanilla was imported from Mexico.
In 1841, a 12-year old boy, a Creole slave by the name of Edmond, who worked as a gardener in Réunion, had the idea of pollinating the flowers by hand (by bringing together the male and female pistils of the flower): this is the process that is still used to this day. To thank him for his discovery, he was freed and given the surname Albius, as a reference to the vanilla flower, which is white. Armed with this new-found civil status, he became a chef and died in poverty 40 years later, while vanilla cultivation took off on the Ile Bourbon with great success, as we know, and made the fortunes of many planters.
The method is very difficult because the vanilla orchid only flowers for one day over a period of two months. It has to be done early in the morning, in dry weather, and the operation does not work every time.
Eight months after pollination, the vanilla pods are mature. Once harvested, they are immersed in 63°C water for 3 minutes and are then stored for a day or two in the warmth under covers until they turn dark brown. They are then dried in the sun, during which time the vanillin crystals develop. Then they are sorted, graded, and packed.
Pods are 14–28 cm long, regardless of their origin. Their weight varies depending on their moisture content.
Black vanilla: the highest quality, the highest moisture content, very soft, 3–5 g.
Brown or TK vanilla: very good quality, a little less moisture, brown with reddish undertones, 2–4 g.
Red vanilla: average quality, more reddish, 2–3 g.
Cuts: the pod has naturally split while ripening, it has the same qualities as the black and brown vanilla, but some seeds have been lost during refining.
Crystallized (or givrée) vanilla: the same qualities as the black and brown vanilla, but the vanillin has crystallized during storage. The crystallization may have been obtained artificially by dipping the pods in a bath of synthetic vanillin, which makes it possible to recycle pods of lesser quality.
Vanilla pods packed in a container sealed with a cork should be avoided, because this promotes mold.
Natural vanilla extract or vanilla essence: produced from vanilla pods (min. 2 g of vanillin per kg).
Natural vanilla flavoring: it contains at least 90% vanillin from the pod (min. 2 g of vanillin per kg).
Vanilla sugar: at least 4% powdered vanilla pod. Vanillin sugar is flavored with artificial vanilla flavor.
Vanilla syrup: vanilla sugar and water
Vanilla paste: vanilla powder mixed with glucose, water, and various additives.
Artificial flavoring, vanilla flavor: ethyl vanillin, synthetic molecule with a more powerful flavor.
Pods: packaged in a plastic food bag under a modified atmosphere, vacuum-packed, in a blister pack, in a jar or tin, or in a single-pod tube.
Powder: in a plastic bag, vacuum-packed, in a jar, or small glass jar.
Natural extract: in a can or bottle.
Vanilla sugar: in a package, in a Doypack® (with spout), in a box.
Before use, a vanilla pod is usually opened and scraped: it is split along its length with the tip of a small knife and the seeds are collected by scraping the blade gently across the surface of the pod.
Vanilla is the most widely used spice in baking. It is used to flavor many custards, flans, puddings, stewed fruit, jams, sauces, and cakes. Vanilla ice cream is the most common flavor and goes with everything.
It also adds subtle notes to savory dishes, discreetly flavoring game, shellfish, poultry, vegetables, and tagines. After use, a vanilla pod can be wiped, rinsed, dried, and stored for later use as a plate decoration.
Vanilla pods should be stored in a dry place, protected from air and light, in a tin or jar (without a cork), tied into small bunches to preserve their moisture and maintain their softness.
They can also be vacuum-packed and stored in a dark place or frozen in a plastic bag.
Vanilla has no particular nutritional virtues, especially given the small amounts used. However, like many spices, it had a reputation for being an aphrodisiac, especially at the court of Louis XIV.
Three major varieties of vanilla are grown in different countries.
Bourbon Vanilla (Vanilla fragrans or Vanilla planifolia)
The one with the most vanillin. It comes from Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros.
Vanilla from Mexico, India, Uganda, Indonesia, and Tonga is the same, but it is not entitled to use the appellation Bourbon.
Vanilla will taste different depending on the country, and even region, of origin.
Tahitian vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis moore)
Thicker pods. Grown in French Polynesia, it has less vanillin but contains heliotropine, which gives it a special flavor. Various types exist: Bora, Tahaa, and Raiattea.
Vanillon or banana vanilla (Vanilla pompona shiede)
Short, fat pods with little vanillin. Not widely cultivated, it is found in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana, and Brazil.