Understanding Vanilla

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Characterized by its delicate, subtle fragrance, vanilla is the quintessential symbol of a long aromatic tradition, with which PROVA's history is closely intertwined.

VANILLA, MAGIC OF AN ORCHID

Shrouded in mystery, vanilla, the “queen of spices” has a long history of intrigue, adventure, and magic. Legend has it that the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, welcomed the conquistador, Hernan Cortez, with “xocolãtl,” a vanilla-flavored chocolate beverage, served in golden goblets. The symbol of an entire aromatic tradition, its tale begins in the Mayan and Aztec eras, after which it found its way to Europe, to Bourbon Island (now Reunion Island), before final introduction to Madagascar, where it has flourished for over 200 years.

A lovely climbing creeper belonging to the orchid family, Vanilla Planifolia is the only orchid whose fruit is edible. It requires a support plant to create shade, and grows in the damp undergrowth of tropical rainforests. In spite of market demand that amounts to hundreds of thousands of tons of vanilla annually, incredibly, every vanilla orchid must still, to this day, be fertilized by hand, using a small piece of bamboo. The vanilla fruit, referred to as “beans,” resemble large green string beans. They grow in bunches on the orchid creeper and are harvested when ripe, before undergoing a long curing process to become a highly prized spice.

The beans are left to dry for several months, during which time countless flavor molecules release while undergoing enzymatic fermentation, generating the distinctive vanilla fragrance. It takes six kilos of green beans to produce one kilo of cured black beans, ready for use.

VANILLA, THE FOCUS OF LONG-TERM ATTENTION

In addition to dexterity, flexibility and speed, the harvesting process also requires good farming practices, derived from the ancestral knowledge of Malagasy farmers. To ensure that the green beans ripen properly into glossy black strips, patience must be applied to tame this capricious flower.

POLLINATION
Outside their country of origin, vanilla flowers must be pollinated by hand. This stage consists of delicately removing the rostellum using a splinter of wood — often bamboo — then exerting slight pressure on the flower so that the pollen is sprinkled onto the stigma to pollinate it. Speed and precision are essential, as there are hundreds of thousands of flowers to pollinate in a short window of time.

SCALDING
Nine months after pollination, the green beans are finally ready to be harvested. The first stage of curing green vanilla is to immerse them in 149°F water for approximately three minutes. This is done to prevent any organic changes.

SWEATING
Once drained, the beans are wrapped in wool cloth and placed inside large wooden crates to “sweat,” where they take on their characteristic glossy brown hue.

DRYING
The beans are spread onto racks to be dried outside in the sun for up to two weeks, sorted, and then shade dried for several months.

PACKING
At packing time, the beans finally acquire their sublime fragrance: a complex bouquet emitted both on the surface of the bean and in the thousands of black seeds it contains.