Vanilla is a beautiful orchid native to Mexico whose fruit provides the spice known as vanilla.
Vanilla, Vanilla planifolia Andr. (Also known as Vanilla fragrans) belongs to the family of Orchidaceae and is a magnificent orchid native to Mexico and Central America that is cultivated for the production of vanilla and is, among all other species, the most important.There are other species that can be used for this purpose and are the Vanilla tahitiensis which is found in Tahiti where it is almost exclusively cultivated and with a different aroma from V. planifolia and the Vanilla pompona which is found in the West Indies but is not very cultivated as it is not very resistant to diseases and is of a lower quality.
In this article we will therefore only talk about Vanilla planifolia (photo below).
The peculiarity is that it produces only one leaf in each node together with strong roots with which it anchors to the trees.It is a plant that grows even 20 cm and does not bloom until it has reached at least 3 m in length.
Orchid flowers are not very large (4x6 cm) yellow-green in color. Normally only one flower per day opens in the whole plant and the whole flowering of the plant lasts about a month. The peculiarity of the flowers is that they open in the morning and close in the evening and never reopen. If they are not pollinated during this one day, after a while, they fall off. Although they are self-fertile they are unable to pollinate themselves without the help ofan external agent which in nature is a butterfly while for commercial production it is done by hand and this operation represents about 50% of its production cost.
Once the flower is pollinated, the fruit (pod) is formed which takes several months to ripen and reach an average size of 20 cm. It is initially green in color and does not have the characteristic aroma. To have the vanilla that we all know requires a precise processing that lasts several months.
The substance responsible for the characteristic aroma of vanilla is vanillin (vanillic aldehyde), a flavoring active ingredient which when it crystallizes, transforms into many small dark needles and acquires the characteristic aroma.In fact, fresh fruits contain two glucosides: glucovanillin and glucovanillic alcohol, both of which, for subsequent fermentations, give vanillin.
Vanillin is a whitish powder made up of numerous needle-like crystals which in taste and smell are reminiscent of vanilla.
It is known that vanilla also has a slight aphrodisiac power.
It is normally used in the pharmaceutical industry as a flavoring.
COLLECTION AND STORAGE
Vanilla uses the fruits that are harvested still unripe, green, without any aroma. At that point a long working process begins which lasts about three months which involves immersion of the pods in water fora few minutes and then their drying in the sun while during the night they are closed in containers to avoid transpiration so that they remain moist. This is repeated until the pod becomes flexible and dark brown in color (it can last several months).
With this system the vanillin, the flavoring active principle crystallizes in many small needles and becomes dark and the pod appears as if it were covered with frost and acquires the characteristic aroma.
To have a kilogram of vanilla pods, it takes about 7 kg of green pods.
USE IN THE KITCHEN
Vanilla is used in the confectionery industry as a flavoring.To use it in this sense, proceed as follows: take the vanilla pod and cut it in half in length. After that, with a flat knife, the seeds that are responsible for the flavoring power are scrapped. At this point you can use the seeds as you see fit to flavor your desserts. The amount of seeds to use will obviously depend on both the type of vanilla and how strong the vanilla aroma you want to give must be. The advice is to do some tests starting with a few seeds and then add them until you find the right balance.
What remains of the pod itself doesn't have much flavoring power but it couldbe used for example by dipping it in sugar to which it will give a slight vanilla aroma or add it to some preparation to try to extract what little aroma it may have left.
Vanilla is a beautiful climbing orchid that can reach a length of 30 m and has the particularity that it reproduces only thanks to an insect that lives exclusively in Mexico. It was Charles Morren who discovered this fact and how to artificially fertilize her. This meant that its cultivation extended to numerous other countries in the world, so much so that today it is also successfully cultivated in New Guinea, Papua and Madagascar.
It is the only orchid species that provides edible fruit.
Numerous studies are underway to renew interest in this spice to improve cultivation and propagation techniques.
The use of vanilla as a spice dates back to the dawn of time. It is known with certainty that the Totonac people (Mexico) used it as a flavoring and with great reverence considering it a gift from the gods. It was Cortes who brought vanilla to Europe and was initially used only in combination with cocoa. Only many years later it began to be used as a unique flavoring and from that moment it began to spread all over the world.
The name Vanilla comes from the Spanish vania "Sheath-like pod" e illa "small". Planifoglia derives instead from the Latin planus "Flat" e folium "Leaf" because of the almost flat leaves.
Online bibliographic sources
(en) University of Connecticut
(es) Metropolitan Autonomous University of the Estado de México
(es) Orchids Asia (from which some photos were also taken)