Jane Says: There’s Nothing Basic About Vanilla
“In your recent column about spices and herbs, you forgot to mention vanilla! Why is such a ubiquitous flavoring so expensive?”
We tend to take vanilla for granted because it’s everywhere—not just in baked goods, ice cream, and that indulgent Frappuccino but in perfumes, skin-care products, medicines, and more. But it is the second-most-expensive spice on the planet (the first is saffron), primarily because cultivation of the vanilla plant is highly labor-intensive (it’s pollinated and harvested by hand) and requires a warm tropical climate, which makes this once-a-year crop vulnerable to cyclones and other natural disasters. Factor in political upheaval, war, competing ethnicities, and cutthroat wheeling and dealing, and you’ve got a spice that’s anything but plain. Or cheap.
Vanilla is the fruit of a tropical climbing orchid native to Mexico, Central America, northern South America, and parts of the West Indies. The Maya used it as a flavoring in chocolatl, and the Totonac Indians, who were probably the first Mesoamericans to cultivate the spice, called it the “nectar of the gods.” To the Aztecs, vanilla beans were more valuable than the cacao beans that were used as currency; they were used as a medicine and aphrodisiac.
When the Spanish brought vanilla back to Europe, the ciertas vaynicas de olores (“various fragrant scabbards”) were the Viagra of the 16th century. Its reputation has legs, so to speak: A small 2014 study (“Human Male Sexual Response to Olfactory Stimuli”) by the Smell and Taste Treatment Research Foundation in Chicago, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons, examines the science behind the allure.
“The French, more than any other inhabitants in Europe, became passionate about vanilla,” wrote Patricia Rain in Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. “It graced the delicious new ice creams and sorbets enjoyed by the aristocracy in the 1700s, and by 1750 vanilla-flavored ice cream was sold year-round in Paris.”
“The French also expanded the use of vanilla into the perfume industry,” she continued. “By the late 1700s, perfumes were commonplace, and what would be more delightful than to use vanilla to soften the strong nuances of Oriental spices and highlight the sweetness of delicate herbs and flowers?”
I learned how tricky vanilla propagation is from pomologist and indefatigable “fruit detective” David Karp, who reported a story on the volatility of the vanilla market from Madagascar for Gourmet in 2002. The birds and bees that pollinate the flowers exist only in the New World (and are now largely extinct, along with much of their rainforest habitat), I learned, and all supplies came from there until the 1840s, when Edmond Albius, a former slave on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, discovered a practical method of hand pollination. “Cultivation on nearby Madagascar soared after its colonization by the French in 1896,” Karp wrote. “Soil and climate conditions are ideal, and there was plenty of cheap land and labor.” These days, vanilla is grown in China, Indonesia, and Uganda as well as Mexico and Madagascar.
Ready for a fun fact? Well, at least I think it’s fun. Orchid pollen is so delicate that it doesn’t exist in fossil records, so scientists have turned to DNA to trace its history. According to University of Wisconsin botany professor Ken Cameron, who first used gene-sequence data to reconstruct the phylogenetic history of orchids at the New York Botanical Gardens, orchids were the first, or oldest, plants in the order Asparagales, which also includes agaves, amaryllises, asparagus, daffodils, onions, and yucca, which is different from yuca (“yew-ka”) or cassava; orchids branched off from the group about 90 million years ago.
After the pale yellow-green vanilla flowers begin to open and are pollinated by hand (this takes place in May and June in Madagascar), they remain on the vine during the long growing season. Nestled between the flower and the stem of the vine is an ovary, which slowly develops into a seedpod, or bean. When the beans grow to six to eight inches in length (which takes until July or August of the following year), they’re harvested by hand. Vanilla beans are bright green to yellow when ripened; they have no flavor or fragrance until they’ve been cured and aged for months.
The highest-quality vanilla beans—known as “black” beans to the cognoscenti—are glossy, supple, moist, and fragrant. Their seeds are abundant and are easily scraped out, and they’re what you want for cooking. “Red” beans are drier and thinner, with reddish-brown streaks; they’re typically beans that have been cured before their time or ones that have been dried more thoroughly. Low-grade “cuts” are snippets of beans that are blended with artificial vanillin. “This synthetic substance, made from wood pulp or petrochemical byproducts, has a strong but one-dimensional flavor, lacking the hundreds of minor chemical components that contribute a complex, mellow aroma to natural vanilla,” Karp wrote.
So, Why Should You Care? Well, the vast majority of vanilla fragrances and flavors that consumers buy are synthetic. Would you rather support the petrochemical industry or vanilla growers, most of whom are trying to claw their way out of poverty? I thought so. It’s also important to note that the boom-or-bust vanilla market is on the radar of businesses worldwide, and it goes hand in hand with climate change. “Vanilla is principally grown in tropical regions that are prone to violent storms,” wrote Evan Abrams in Global Risk Insights.
“As the oceans warm, such super storms will become increasingly frequent. This creates vulnerability for coastal producers such as Madagascar and Indonesia,” he continued. “Countries that are able to grow their crop further inland may have to pay high transport costs, but they will be protected from losing their crop to severe weather events. In this regard, places like Uganda and Mexico should win out.” Abrams also brought up the trade in synthetic vanilla, which is significantly cheaper than the real deal. “Recent years have given rise to consumer concern over the chemicals used in synthetic vanilla and a desire for organic or pure products,” he wrote. “How the growing ‘natural v. synthetic’ debate plays out in the years to come will be a key market determinant.”
Depending on where the vanilla is grown, the flavor characteristics vary. Of the three main types listed below, one type isn’t better than another; it just depends on your individual palate.
Bourbon Vanilla Beans
Bourbon vanilla isn’t named for one of the American South’s greatest gifts to the world but for the fact that Réunion was once known as Ile de Bourbon after the French royal family. It’s grown on that island, as well as in the former French colonies of Madagascar and the Comoros. Bourbon vanilla beans are mellow and rich in flavor and fragrance.
Mexican Vanilla Beans
Mexican vanilla beans are a bit thicker, more robust-looking, and gloriously full-flavored, with a sweet-spicy aroma. Beware of buying inexpensive Mexican vanilla extract; odds are it’s synthetic and contains coumarin, a toxic substance banned by the FDA.
Tahitian Vanilla Beans
Tahitian vanilla beans come from a different species, which is why they’re usually shorter, plumper, and more moist than other beans. They also have fewer seeds and are not as glossy. Tahitian vanilla has a stronger fruity, floral flavor and aroma that bears little resemblance to the Nilla Wafers of childhood. Anytime you see bargain prices for Tahitian vanilla, check the origin; they are likely the same species but grown in Papua New Guinea and don’t seem quite as flavorful as the true Tahitian beans.
When buying vanilla extract, look for the words “alcohol 35 percent”—a clue that you’re getting the genuine article. (Alcohol is a time-honored base for infusing and preserving, and it doesn’t turn rancid.) Avoid anything marked “vanilla flavoring.”
My go-to source for beans and extract is Patricia Rain’s website, The Vanilla Company. Her products are fair-trade, sustainably grown, and organic. You have to buy in bulk (which makes your purchase even more sustainable), but I usually split an order with friends, and they all go home happy, especially when they realize how easy it is to make homemade vanilla ice cream. Rain (aka “The Vanilla Queen”) carries vanilla from Madagascar and Tahiti; for Mexican vanilla, check out Beanilla.com.