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.