May 12th 2016
Vanilla is a vine that is a member of the orchid family. It is the only orchid to bear an edible fruit. Vanilla is indigenous to tropical Mexico and Latin America. The first historical reference to this beloved u can be traced back to Mexico in 1520. The Spanish explorer, Cortez, was introduced to a drink made of cocoa, honey and vanilla, by the Aztecs, during his exploration of the country. Over time, cuttings of vanilla were brought to other tropical growing regions, particularly in the Indian Ocean locales of Madagascar, Réunion and Comoros. Vanilla from this part of the world is called Bourbon Vanilla, named for the French Bourbon Kings who ruled the region in the 1800s. Today, the major growers of vanilla are Madagascar, Indonesia, Comoros, Uganda, and Papua New Guinea.
The vanilla vine requires a small live tree for support and light shade.
The plant is propagated from cuttings from an existing vine. Young plants require three years to mature before they are ready to produce beans of any quantity.
Once a vine is mature, and prior to the onset of the monsoon period, it grows a fruit-bearing runner that usually has three or four brackets that develop individual f lowers - a few per day per vine - in the early morning. It is critical that farmers hand-pollinate each flower on the morning it appears, as the flowers wilt and fall off that same afternoon.
Nature originally intended for a special, tiny bee – called the Melipone Bee – in Central America and Mexico to do this job. However, when vanilla was exported to other growing countries, no local insect inherited this important task! This was a big problem for several hundred years. Early farmers propagated vines in different tropical regions of the world, but no vanilla beans developed.
Finally, a Belgian botanist discovered the pollination deficiency in the early 1800s, and the hand-pollination process was born. Once a flower is pollinated, it takes seven to nine months for a bean to develop and reach full maturity.
Equally important as proper growing of vanilla beans is how they are cured to bring out their full flavour. Curing is a manual process that began in the early 1900s. The mature green beans are picked and, within a short period of time, placed in boiling water for three minutes to arrest growth. Then, they are sweated in burlap-wrapped piles or wooden boxes for three days, which continues the curing process. After that, the beans are sun dried for two to three months, during which time the farmers bring the beans outside each morning and spread them on pieces of burlap to soak up the sun’s direct rays. Each afternoon, the beans are wrapped and returned inside for the night. The final stage is allowing the beans to further cure in wax-lined wooden boxes, which brings out their full flavour.
The end result is a rich, dark brown, moist, and pliable bean that is loaded with aroma and flavour.