Vanilla belongs to the orchid family and is native to the Caribbean, Central and South America. The first people who extracted vanilla from vanilla orchids were Totonacs of the east coast of Mexico. Traditionally, vanilla extraction has been a labour-intensive, multi-step procedure, and quite demanding. As a consequence, chemists and researchers have found substitutes that may be able to provide us with the vanilla flavour without compromising its aroma, fragrance, or texture. Natural vanilla cannot be colourless since macerating dark vanilla beans prepare it. This means clear vanilla is fake if you ever encounter one.
Where is vanilla orchid grown?
Initially, Vanilla orchids were mainly found in Mexico and supported by the Maya. Later, it was grown by the Totonac tribe, present-day Veracruz. The first people who used vanilla mixed them with their chocolate drinks for added flavours. Other European countries started using vanilla pods and grew their orchids, but most of them never succeeded. This is because of the climatic conditions and lack of seed pollination. Today, most of the vanilla flavour is sourced from Madagascar, Tahiti and Mexico. However, you may find vanilla orchids in India, Uganda, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea as well.
How is a pure vanilla flavour made from bean pods?
The seeds of a special orchid that is a member of the Vanilla genus contain the authentic vanilla flavour. Even though there are a number of different types of vanilla orchids, only two of them can produce pods that can be used to extract vanilla flavour — Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis. Commercially, these are referred to as vanilla beans, however, the plant doesn’t come from the legume family, and they aren’t technically beans. The orchids get connected to the trees and cling to them as they age. It never harms the host tree because it is not a parasitic plant. It is mostly white and has squishy roots that round the tree’s bark. They produce fleshy blossoms, have the ability to absorb moisture, and support orchid growth.
The original vanilla plants may grow up to 300 feet tall and develop like a clinging vine. The Mexican people use melipona bees to pollinate vanilla, and after pollination, vanilla pods decompose and sink into the ground. Only 24 hours are allowed for each vanilla bloom to remain open before they close, preventing pollination. Because the seed producers have a very little window of time to pollinate, the majority of them perish throughout the procedure, lengthening the whole process.
Since the vanilla aroma and flavours do not reveal themselves until they are cured and dried, managing plants during the processing time becomes very important once the plant bears the fruit. They are sorted and graded after harvesting and then blanched in hot water before the fermentation process. They are well-kept in large containers to sweat for about 36-48 hours when the bean changes its colour from green to brown.
Once the beans develop aroma, they undergo alternate periods of sun drying and sweating day and night which may last 15 days and ends with a slow drying process. This usually takes place indoors in a ventilated place and may take 30 days according to the seed quality. The entire process from growing, pollination, curing, drying and preparing for commercialization may take around 12-14 months.
How is a synthetic vanilla flavour made?
Vanilla flavour, whether natural or artificial is made from a compound called vanillin which is responsible for the aromatic flavour notes. The extraction of natural vanillin from vanilla pods is a costly affair, labour intensive and time-taking. Therefore, 90% of the vanillin consumed today is obtained from artificially made vanillin obtained from lignin, petroleum, guaiacol, as a byproduct of rice bran oil, clove extraction, wood pulp and others. In the 19th century, food scientists discovered the procedure through which synthetic vanillin could be made easily that provides aroma and taste just like the ones extracted from the vanilla plant.
How is a vanilla flavour made from beaver butts?
Beaver is an animal that belongs to the rodent family and is the second-largest living rodent after the capybaras. The animal secretes a chemical called castoreum that is highly aromatic fluid brown. Castoreum is found beside the beaver’s anal glands which it uses for communication purposes and to mark its territory. Although the excretions smell very bad when extracted due to bacteria besides the anal glands, when processed, they smell soothing and aromatic. Besides, the excretions milking process is very unpleasant which makes castoreum consumption very small. Since the last century, castoreum is been used mostly in the perfumery industry and sometimes in food to add vanilla flavour.