During my trip with Natural Exposures to Madagascar in October 2016, in addition to enjoying the antics of the lemurs (stay tuned for that post), I was also quite intrigued by the vanilla plant and how this spice was grown and cultivated. Not only did I want to purchase some high quality vanilla from the island of Madagascar, I wanted to learn why it was so expensive.
Vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron, because growing the vanilla seed pods is very labor intensive. Although native to Mexico until the mid 19th century, vanilla is now widely grown throughout the tropics with Indonesia and Madagascar being the world’s largest producers. The reason Mexico enjoyed the monopoly on vanilla for more than 300 years is because only the bees of the Melipona genus found in Mexico could pollinate the flower and thus produce the fruit. In 1841, a simple and efficient artificial hand-pollination method was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius, who used a beveled sliver of bamboo to separate the membrane from the anther and the stigma, then using his thumb, transferred the pollen from the anther to the stigma. The flower, now self-pollinated, will produce a fruit. The vanilla flower lasts about one day, sometimes less, so growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers which then need to be hand pollenated as above. This labor-intensive task is still in use today! So that’s why the vanilla is so expensive!
The distinctively flavored compounds are found in the fruit, which results from the pollination of the flower. The seed pods are roughly a third of an inch by six inches, and brownish red to black when ripe. Inside of these pods is an oily liquid full of tiny seeds. The fruit, a seed capsule, if left on the plant, ripens and opens at the end; as it dries the phenolic compounds crystallize giving the fruits a diamond dusted appearance, which the French call givre (hoarfrost). It then releases that delicious vanilla smell! The fruit contains tiny black seeds and in dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, these seeds are recognizable as black specks. Both the pod and the seeds are used in cooking.
Despite the expense, vanilla is highly valued for its flavor and widely used in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacturing, and aromatherapy. I purchased my Madagascar vanilla pods to make my own vanilla vodka (lots of vodka, several vanilla bean pods, time, and a dark bottle), vanilla extract (less vodka, vanilla seed pods, time, and a dark bottle), and of course vanilla custards, ice creams, and crème brulee! Maybe some of my readers would like to join me for a vanilla vodka tasting party??? Post a comment on this blog to possibly receive an invitation for this great sounding party!