Where: Originates from Mexico & Caribbean, now grown mainly in Veracruz, Mexico and Tahiti
Uses: Delicate, sweet flavouring, as well as perfumes, industrial & medicinal use
Serving Suggestion: Great as the perfect flavour ice cream or in a Mexican style Vanilla pie
Did you know: The french eat 50,000 tonnes of hot mustard every year
The vanilla pod is a fruit of a tropical orchid family and there are around 150 different varieties although only Tahitian and Bourbon are used commercially. Tahiti vanilla is a 20th century mutated variation of the typical Mexican vanilla. The vanilla plant is native to the Americas, especially around Mexico and the Caribbean. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron and is grown in the state of Veracruz on the gulf coast of Mexico.
How it’s made
It’s a highly labour intensive crop which takes up to 3 years between planting to flower, and a further 9 months to develop a strong aroma, although the distinctive smell and taste is developing during curing. After harvest, the beans are either steamed or sun baked until they have shrunk up to 5 times their original size. This process alone can take several months, after which the beans are rested to complete their fragrance. While unsuitable for a large export market, these pods are carefully harvested and sold to gourmets the world over, willing to special-order them direct from the source. The USA is the world biggest vanilla fan, followed by Europe, led by the French.
The process of making vanilla was discovered by the indigenous Totonac people who kept its cultivation methods secret for hundreds of years. Although vanilla production now takes place in Madagascar and Tahiti, the Totonacs still believe that the bean is a gift from the Gods – vines are grown in private houses, figures are crafted from it and pods have the place of honour in processions. It was exported from Mexico in the 16th Century by the Spanish Conquestors who believed it would be valuable as a perfume. Soon they discovered its more memerising power as a flavour. Because of its value, vanilla has often been subject to crime and theft, and ‘vanilla rustlers’ were once a big problem for Mexican farmers. So much so that the farmers would mark the individual beans so they could be recognized again if they were stolen.
Worth catching is the annual Vanilla Festival, held in Papantla, a major vanilla growing town in Veracruz. Spectacular flying ‘voladores’ dances can be seen on a regular basis, and premium vanilla products from all over the state can be bought in the main town square.
Vanilla has many varied uses, not just as a cooking flavour. It’s used in perfumes, but also medicines and has a way of hiding strong, industrial smells like paint and rubber. One of its biggest uses is in ice creams, yogurts and dairy products. Because of its unique production methods, its ironic that vanilla ice cream is often known only as ‘plain’. However, because of its huge expense, nearly all vanilla used is synthetically produced.
The Gaya family of Papantla, Veracruz cater to a select clientele selling the purest vanilla extract in liquid form as well as a fine liqueur called Xanath.
Avenida Hidalgo #56,
Gutierrez Zamora, Veracruz.
Tel: + 52 22 33 24 604
Fax: 00 52 766 845 0497
Enter the intoxicating world of Vanilla and meet the Vanilla Queen!
Main Image: Louana, a Vanilla farmer in Moorea, Tahiti, Pilot Productions