Vanilla pods or beans as they are commonly called, are the fruit of an orchid, of which there are thousands of species. Vanilla is one of them, producing an edible fruit.
Vanilla is indigenous to the East Central Coast of what is today Mexico, and was cultivated by Totonaco Indians deriving profits from it.
They kept the area of vanilla cultivation secret until Aztecs defeated peaceful Totonaco Indians, and demanded the fruit of the Tliloxochti vine, vanilla. These pods along with cocoa beans were used to make a drink called chocolatl.
When Hernando Cortez conquered the Aztecs, Emperor Montezuma greeted him with a golden cup of chocolatl in his magnificent palace. Cortez was suitably impressed with the unique taste, and asked for the recipe. Montezuma revealed the ingredients (ground corn, coca beans, vanilla pods, and honey). Shortly after revealing the secret recipe, he lost not only his empire, but also his life.
After Spaniards conquered the Aztecs, vanilla was shipped to many European countries, and in 1602 an English pharmacist (Hugh Morgan) proposed using it as flavouring agent.
Today, vanilla is used in baking, alcoholic beverage production, and as a flavouring agent in thousands of common foods.
Around 1790’s the vine was smuggled out of Mexico to Ile de Bourbon (a French protectorate), and then gradually spread to Madagascar, Indonesia, Tahiti, Uganda, India, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Costa Rica, Fiji, Jamaica, Hawaii, China, and the Philippines. The world’s largest producer is Madagascar.
Vanilla is a tropical plant and thrives between 10- 20 degrees north or south of the equator up to 750 metres above sea level.
On average, the plant has a bearing life of approximately 12 years.
It must be pollinated the day the flower opens, which occurs only one day a year. Growing vanilla requires a lot of attention and is very labour intensive.
Six to nine months after pollination, pods start to turn yellow, but not all at once. Workers must evaluate each plant daily, and pick the beans when ripe.
After picking, pods must undergo several processes lasting three to six months, and a lot of manipulation.
Vanilla pods are expensive, but one pod can perfume the dough of several tortes or pies, or100 litres of ice cream, or hundreds of chocolate bars.
Approximately 2000 tons of pods are produced worldwide.
Because vanilla is expensive, most pastry shops and housewives use imitation vanilla in liquid form.
FDA (Food And Drug Administration Of America) classifies vanilla as folds 1 – 4.
One fold should contain 41 grams of vanilla extracted in 4968 litres of water; two folds 82 grams, 3 123 grams, and four 167 grams. (one ounce being calculated as 31 grams rounded from 30.8)
Pods of vanilla, or vanilla extract liquid can be used alternately, and both are produced by highly specialized companies both in Europe and the U S A, the largest users of vanilla.