Scientific Name: Vanilla planifolia
Plant Part: Fruit
Other Names: Baunilha, Vanilija, Vanilka. Vanilje, Vanille, Vanille, Vainilla
The vanilla orchid is a fleshy, perennial vine with oblong leaves and aerial roots at the nodes helping it climb to heights of up to 30 meters.
The plant produces flowers that are tubular in shape, fragrant and waxy, and can take on a white, yellow, or greenish colour.
In order for the plant to produce fruits i.e. vanilla beans, the flowers must be pollinated by hand, this is because the only bee in the world capable of pollinating vanilla flowers is native to Mexico, called the Mexican Melipona bee.
Vanilla orchids thrive in tropical climates and are native to Mexico but over the centuries have made their way to other parts of the world. The largest vanilla-producing countries include Madagascar tons, followed by Indonesia, China, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea.
There are 3 main species of vanilla that are cultivated around the world for their fruit and these include Vanilla planifolia (Mexican vanilla), Vanilla pompona (West Indian vanilla), and Vanilla tahitensis (Tahitian vanilla) each with their own unique characteristics including appearance, flavour, and yield.
History of Vanilla
Vanilla is believed to be first cultivated in Mexico by the Totonac Indians in the 12th century who were the indigenous people of Mexico. The vanilla bean was indigenous to the tropical parts of Mexico and Latin America.
The Totonacs considered vanilla a sacred herb and used it in ritual offerings, as a perfume, and for medicine, but not really as a flavoring.
After the Aztecs took control of most of present-day Mexico defeating the Totonacs, it was then vanilla was put to use as a flavouring, this was around 1427.
The Aztecs had discovered a drink that was made by mixing together cocoa and vanilla, they called it “xocolatl”.
It was this very special drink that was served to the Spanish explorer, Hernando Cortes, who was served this drink by the Aztec emperor Montezuma in 1519 upon his first visit to Mexico.
It was this very moment that changed the history of vanilla as we know it today, the Spaniards loved the drink so much that they took vanilla beans back to Spain as a discovery from the new world.
Vanilla beans slowly became a much-wanted commodity in Europe as it was put to some good culinary use, becoming an integral part of many recipes. This led to shipments of vanilla beans being regularly sent to Europe from Mexico.
The Spanish soon took control of Mexico from the Aztecs and started to take vanilla cuttings for propagation purposes to other tropical parts of the world as they expanded their trading empire.
The vines did grow but soon the Spaniards realised that the plan did not bear any fruit.
It took some 300 years until a Belgian botanist by the name of Charles François Antoine Morren decided to take a trip to Mexico to understand why the vanilla vines elsewhere in the world did not produce any beans.
After careful observation, he realised that it was a tiny stingless bee known as the Melipone bee that was responsible for the pollination of vanilla flowers.
The problem was that this bee was native to the wilderness of Mexico and inspite of efforts to introduce this species of bee in other parts of the world, it did not survive.
The only way to get vanilla orchids to bear fruit was to hand-pollinate them.
And it was a boy by the name of Edmond Albius from the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean who perfected the technique of hand pollination.
From there on it was a tiny set of islands near Madagascar called Bourbon Islands, controlled by the French, that became the most successful at growing vanilla beans.
Harvesting and Post Harvesting Practices
Vanilla is harvested after about 6-9 months of the flower blooming. This is the amount of time the fruit or the vanilla pod actually takes to ripen after pollination.
A good indicator of the beans being ready for harvesting is when fine yellow streaks start appearing on them and the tip turns yellow, also called the blossom-end yellow stage of the bean.
The timing of harvest is very important as immature pods produce an inferior product and over-mature pods split during curing.
Once the beans are removed from the vine, they stop to ripen any further, and at this stage, they hold next to zero market value because the vanillin content in them is very little.
Curing is a complex & delicate process that should start within 24 hours of the vanilla beans being harvested.
Curing is considered to be an art and it takes years of experience to master the process.
Curing consists of 4 different stages that include dipping, sweating, drying, and conditioning.
Dipping involves immersing the beans in hot water at a temperature of about 170 degrees Fahrenheit for anywhere between a few seconds to a few minutes.
This process ensures that the vanilla bean is killed and enzymes start to release that are responsible for the production of vanillin, the main flavouring component of vanilla.
In some areas of the world, the beans can also be killed by wrapping the beans in a plastic sheet and exposing them to the sun however the former method is preferred as it improves the enzymatic activity.
The next step, sweating involves wrapping the vanilla beans in blankets and then storing them in a dark airtight container. This step leads to the enzymatic breakdown of glucovanillins. Glucose acts as a preserving agent and vanillin is the flavouring component as mentioned above.
The temperature inside the container needs to be maintained on the warmer side while the vanilla beans are stored as this ensures that the flavour continues to build and no mold can grow.
Now, once enough flavour has been built, the next step is to dry the vanilla beans or in other words reduce the moisture content to about 25%, which is an acceptable level for the transportation and storage of beans.
Drying of the beans can take up to 3-4 weeks and involves exposing the beans to air and taking them in and out of the sun.
The final step in the process is conditioning which involves placing the dried beans in closed boxes lined with wax paper. This will further build the aroma of the vanilla beans.
If the above process is successful it will result in beautiful, shiny, black vanilla beans that are bursting with flavour.
Our Supply Chain
The Sabor Co. procures its vanilla pods directly from marginal farmers located in the following countries.
The first Vanilla vine is believed to have been planted in India in the year 1835 by most probably the officials of the East India Company or the Portuguese. The three main states where vanilla is growing include Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala where it is mainly grown by marginal farmers.
In recent years some farmers in the Northeastern state of Meghalaya have also undertaken vanilla cultivation. Read more