The vanilla bean as we know it does not occur in this form in the wild.
Left to its own devices and in the wild, even in places where it is naturally pollinated by the Melipone bee endemic to Mexico, Central and South America, vanilla does not reveal any taste or even any fragrance worth mentioning.
It is only with the help of an expert and human hand that vanilla develops one of the most bewitching perfumes on this planet.
The traces of the origins of this adventure are lost in the memories of the Tototaques,
a people with pre-Columbian origins still present in the state of Veracruz in Mexico. The same people who dominated the vanilla market for nearly 150 years, until a young 12 year old slave from Reunion Island named Edmond Albius
, managed to unravel the mystery of the orchid's fertilization, despite what his sympathetic descendants think in this hyperlink
. Until then,all attempts to pollinate this orchid outside its natural area of origin ended in failure because neither the melipone bee nor the vanilla pollinating hummingbird have ever been able to survive elsewhere.
The process used today is still the same as that discovered by Edmond Albius. It is done early each morning because the flowers have a short life of a few hours at the beginning of the day; and in dry weather, because rain has the effect of thwarting the formation of the fruit.
The flower is held delicately with one hand, with one finger as a support under the column (the central part of the flower). With a pointed but not sharp instrument, such as a thorn, the cap that protects the male sexual organs is torn off. With the same instrument, the tongue (the rostellum) separating the female organs from the male part is then straightened and the stamen carrying the pollen is brought closer to the freed stigma with the fingers, exerting a little pressure to ensure good contact.
If this patient operation is not enough to convince you of the validity of the current price of vanilla, you should know that the adventure does not end there.
The fruit takes nine long months to ripen before it begins to develop the desired aromatic molecules, and it is only in the last few weeks that they become concentrated in the pod. Picking them too early cancels out any possibility of flavour development. Surprisingly, there is a smuggling market for immature vanilla called "Potsa" in Madagascar. Severely punished by the Malagasy government, this practice unfortunately tends to become widespread, due to the insatiable demand of industrial extract producers.
I develop this subject further in one of my blogs, but know that what characterizes a quality harvest, from a mediocre harvest at this stage of the process, is the method of picking. If vanillas are picked by the bunch, as required by industrial producers looking for the lowest possible cost, the average vanillin content of a bunch can vary from 0 to 2%. This implies that some pods can be exquisite, and others insipid, because they do not all ripen at the same rate. This is not a diet of bananas!
The secret of a succulent vanilla bean lies in a jealous care to pick the pods one by one, at the peak of their ripening. In addition, full ripening of the vanilla allows for the development of enzymes and essential oils that allow it to better resist the bacteria and fungi that can contaminate the vanilla throughout the drying process .
Unfortunately this practice has been lost almost everywhere in Madagascar and is almost absent in all the new producing countries, except for a few isolated craftsmen of our knowledge...
The transformation of a perfectly odorless fruit into a mellow and pleasantly scented spice requires a careful and methodical preparation whose four-step principles have been developed in Mexico for a long time. After harvesting at a precise time; not too early, not too late, the pod is subjected to a heat shock that seals in the maturation of the pod, followed by a series of processing, drying and sorting operations that last nearly ten months before the finished product of the gourmet vanilla bean.
Scalding is done by several methods, either in the oven, cold, infrared or alcohol, but the most commonly used method today is a hot water bath, as in this illustration.
1) Scalding in wicker baskets filled with ripe vanilla beans (up to 30 kg
per basket). They are immersed for no more than three minutes in water heated to 65C(150F).
2) Steaming: After scalding, the pods are placed between wool blankets in large boxes for a maximum of 24 hours. Thus kept warm, they lose 50% of their water, evolve enzymatically and acquire their chocolate brown colour;
3) Drying: for two to six weeks, depending on its potential quality, the vanilla is dried for a few hours a day, first in an oven at 65 °C (150F) on racks, then in the sun, and finally in the shade for the best quality, and finally put in trunks.
4) Refining. This crucial stage of the process lasts for eight to ten months, and even two years in Réunion. The vanilla beans are placed in wooden trunks lined with parchment paper and it is during this period that the aroma develops; the trunks are visited at least every week to remove any mouldy beans that might contaminate the others. Many new producing countries bypass this step by simply vacuum packing their vanilla in order to gain a little water weight in the sale per kilo, and avoid losses of mouldy vanilla during the maturing process. If you are ever offered one, beware!
After the transformation, comes the grading and the packaging. This stage, which is very rough in most of the new producing countries, is still very important and well valued in Madagascar. It allows to sort the pods according to their length, while carrying out a last sorting: the slightly split at the foot among the best qualities; the split "belly" and "throat" among the second quality vanilla. The longest, full of caviar and slightly split at the base will be the best valued. The pods of the same length are then bundled, and bagged with enough air to allow them to breathe.
Here: poor packaging
Here: good packaging for transport