Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Most of us don't give vanilla a second thought. You might think of vanilla as a very "plain" flavor. But in fact, vanilla has a very colorful past that is anything but plain. I never really stopped to consider the origin of vanilla past the grocery store shelf until fairly recently. My interest in orchids is what really made me appreciate vanilla.
Vanilla extract comes from the fruit of the Vanilla orchid, of which there are over 100 species known worldwide. Most of the vanilla grown commercially is the species Vanilla planifolia, also called "Madagascar-Bourbon" vanilla produced in Madagascar and Indonesia.
There has been debate on the exact date of the discovery, but most estimate vanilla use dates back at least 1,000 years. Cortez is credited with introducing human consumption of vanilla to Europe in the 1500s. The Aztecs fed Cortez a drink called xocolat, a hot chocolate-like mixture of cocoa beans, corn, honey, and vanilla, and he was hooked. So was everyone in Europe after they tried the strange elixir from the New World.
The New World explorers brought the plant back to Europe, but no one could manage to get Vanilla to produce its valuable fruit outside of its native lands in Mexico and Central America. The production of Vanilla fruit remained exclusive to Vanilla's native habitat for over two centuries.
It wasn't until 1836 that a Belgian botanist, Charles Morren, discovered the key to producing Vanilla fruit was pollination of the flower by a tiny bee native to the region. He is the first person to have successfully pollinated and produced Vanilla fruit, or beans outside of Mexico. Reportedly he learned the method of hand-pollination key to producing Vanilla outside of Mexico from a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius.
The Vanilla orchid is a vine, and it needs support from a tree, pole, or some other means of support. Left unchecked, the Vanilla vine will grow as high as possible on a given support while producing very few flowers. In commercial situations, workers re-direct the vines to grow at heights easily accessible by people on the ground. This also greatly stimulates flowering. Individual flowers only last a day or less, so workers must inspect vanilla plants daily for new flowers.
Though the Vanilla fruit, or bean is filled with seeds, Vanilla is typically propagated by cuttings because the seed requires the presence of specific fungi to even have a chance at germinating.
Producing the Vanilla bean takes at least nine months, and is only the first step in vanilla production. Vanilla orchids, and fresh Vanilla beans have no vanilla scent. It is only after a complicated three month curing process of heating and cooling that the distinctive scent and flavor of vanilla develops. The finished product is sold, or may be processed into vanilla extract. Considering the amount of labor that contributes to the finished product, it's no wonder that vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.
Given the cost of producing vanilla, it seems only natural that people were intent on finding an inexpensive method to produce the vanilla flavor in a laboratory. Natural vanilla extract contains several hundred different compounds. Chemists isolated the major flavor component of vanilla extract, vanillin, in 1858. A few short years later, in 1874, chemists were able to produce vanillin from pine sap. Today, vanillin is produced from lignin, a chemical derived from wood that is a by-product of the paper industry.
In 2006, Japanese researchers announced they had developed a new source of vanillin—cow manure! Cattle eat a lot of grass, which contains lignin. The lignin is hard to digest and tends to be excreted in their manure. The Japanese researchers are using this lignin to produce vanillin. Acknowledging that most people find this source of vanillin rather unappetizing, the researchers promise that this new source of vanillin would only be used for producing the vanilla scent for candles and cosmetics, not food items.
While enjoying your holiday baking this season, reconsider the notion of vanilla as a "plain" flavor. Given its history and production process, how can anyone call vanilla "plain"?