Terri on (YUM!) Vanilla

I like Vanilla. I like Terri’s writing. Together? It’s all good!

Vanilla. According to the International Ice Cream Organization (a dream company to work for, if ever I heard of one), the number one ice cream is vanilla, which garnered 29% of the fave-vote. Surprisingly, chocolate could not touch vanilla’s popularity, with only 8.9% of those questioned claiming it as favorite. Honorable mention goes to butter pecan and strawberry, tied at 5.3% favoritality.

Vanilla is an orchid. And like most orchids, it’s persnickety about its bloom.

Native to Mesoamerica, the vanilla plant blooms but one day a year and on that day, bees—specifically, the Melipona bee—and maybe some hummingbirds pollinate the plant and cause the big green beans to start growing off the flower, almost immediately. If the flowers are not pollinated on that one day they wither and die, with nothing but their graceful fragrance left behind. Once European conquistadors were done…conquistadoring, they brought the vanilla plant back to Europe. From the late 1500s on it grew in popularity throughout the cultured gardens of Europe. Only the conquistadors forgot to bring the appropriate bees and hummingbirds. The plants flowered but did not pollinate until 1841, when 12-year-old Edmond Albius, a plantation slave on Réunion Island, discovered how to hand-pollinate vanilla by doing the work himself and physically mating the plant’s male and female parts.

To this day, most vanilla is painstakingly, carefully pollinated by hand. Vanilla beans are most hearty when left to mature on the vine, and can take up to nine months to reach full maturity. Then they are boiled and sweated and dried and cured; it takes close to a year for a bean crop to be ready to use. And that’s not even taking Cyclone Enawo into account.

Enawo tore through Madagascar’s vanilla crops in 2017, causing vanilla prices to soar to nearly six times their normal prices and sparked a crime wave in Madagascar as cases of cured vanilla beans were hijacked. Real vanilla is second only to saffron in cost (yes, even after Enawo), which will be discussed in a later post. So if it is so expensive, how has it come to be used in roughly 18,000 commercial products, with a bottle in almost every home pantry?

Most—99%, some sources say—of the products we use that have vanilla in them are actually made using synthetic vanilla. The main flavor compound of vanilla, vanillin, or 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, is quite easy to replicate in a lab and when heated, the taste differences between real and synthetic vanilla are nearly indistinguishable. Ice cream makers? That’s a different story since there’s a marked difference in taste if the synthetic stays cold. They’ve borne the brunt of Enawo too, with some creameries halting production on their vanillas until the prices return to normal.

For those with real vanilla—with beans in their hands—remember, those babies are packed with all sorts of goodies. Vanillin has been shown to help lower cholesterol, and the bean contains potassium; together, they boost heart health. There is an array of B-vitamins tucked into this bean, helping keep skin healthy and metabolism chugging along. Aromatherapy fans often use vanilla oil in a diffuser to help combat depression. But! Vanilla oil can cause rashes, so take care not to rub too much essential oil on your skin. And drop spent bean casings into sugar so the remaining vanilla essence can infuse the sugar with its goodness, to make a rich vanilla sugar you could eat on…anything. It would make a shoe taste better, but I digress.

Vanilla. Who knew? It’s a winking code word for something bland and basic, but vanilla’s not so vanilla, when you get the bigger picture.

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