Vanilla pods come from the Vanilla Orchid Plant, one of the easier to grow indoor orchids. They look like green beans when they’re ripe and after picking need to be dried and fermented for their rich flavour to develop. It’s a fairly complicated and lengthy process, which is why the price is so high. Vanilla beans only grow in tropical climates.
Today most the vanilla flavour and scent used come from artificial production, but the natural vanilla pod is from the commercially grown Vanilla planifolia, which will climb to provide the partial shade it prefers. The flowers are large and white, greenish yellow, green, or creamy in colour. Each flower blooms for a day and needs to be pollinated within that time.
Its history begins in Mexico where the Totonaco people were the first to cultivate the plant. According to legend the blood of two lovers marked the spot where an orchid vine grew and therefore the scent of vanilla signifies love and beauty. The vanilla orchid was introduced to England in the early 1700’s, by the 1800’s the plants were becoming rare and began to be smuggled out of Mexico and Central America.
When the Spanish defeated the Aztecs, and introduce it to Spain they began to use vanilla beans and cacao together to make an unusual drink which then was only enjoyed by the rich nobility. It gradually crept throughout Europe and in 1602, Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, recommended that vanilla be used by itself.
These days vanilla beans are produced in four main growing areas, each with its distinctive characteristics. Madagascar is the largest grower of vanilla beans in the world producing the highest quality pure vanilla on the market, it is described as creamy, sweet, smooth, mellow flavour.
The second largest production area is Indonesia, which grows a vanilla pod that is woody and astringent. These two produce 90% of the world’s production of vanilla.
Mexico, it’s origin, produces only a small percentage of the world production. Mexican vanilla is creamy, sweet, smooth and spicy. Tahiti is the smallest producer of the four major regions. Vanilla from Tahiti is flowery, fruity and smooth.
Vanilla is now one of the most widely used flavours in the world, mainly used in ice creams, it is also used for sauces in Mexico and biscuits in Sweden but others uses can be found as diverse as for fruit in Polynesia and perfume in Paris.