The History of Vanilla
It is the ancient Totonaco Indians in Mexico who were the first keepers of the secrets of Vanilla. When they were defeated by the Aztecs, they were demanded to relinquish their exotic fruit of the Tlilxochitlvine Vanilla Pods.
When the Aztecs were defeated by the Spaniard, Hernando Cortez, he combined cocoa & vanilla to make an unusual and pleasing drink. For eighty years, this special beverage was only enjoyed by the nobility and the very rich.
Then in 1602, Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, suggested that Vanilla could be used as a flavouring all by itself, and the versatility of the exotic bean was finally uncovered.
The early cultivation of Vanilla took place on the French Island of Reunion, which is located in the Indian Ocean on the Coast of Africa. Reunion was also known as Bourbon Island and hence the term Bourbon Vanilla was created and became the common name for the Vanilla Planifolia.
World Wide Production
The majority of vanilla is grown in Madagascar where a sophisticated industry has evolved and some of the finest bourbon vanilla is produced. Saplings from this area have been successfully transplanted to other parts of the world where they have mastered the cultivation of this species. Most vanilla in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is cultivated in small family farms, unlike the large industrial complexes found in Madagascar. Consequently, production figures are hard to quantify exactly. Furthermore, large quantities of PNG vanilla are smuggled into neighbouring Indonesia where it is mixed with inferior local crops in an attempt to upgrade the quality. Consequently, the better quality product from PNG inflates the Indonesian production numbers. PNG production now runs at about 150 metric tonnes a year, making it probably the worlds third largest producer, and is one of the few regions in the world that grow both planifolia (bourbon) and tahitensis (tahitian) species.
The vanilla plantations are created from the natural jungle environment. The soils have never been subjected to harmful pesticides, herbicides, insecticides or chemical fertilisers. Just a pristine environment, a wonderful climate and tender loving care. The farmer and his family weed the ground regularly by hand, often using a traditional machete, very simple but effective.
The vines grow around host trees and will develop for three years before they produce beans, they continue to produce beans for about a decade before being replaced. Farmers use host trees to provide a jungle canopy that protects the vines and blossoms from the sun, high winds, heavy rains and other damaging effects. Every day, the farmers check each plant for signs of an open blooming orchid. This blossom will last for only one day and will die by nightfall. Once the flower falls the bean will stop growing. The farmers have just a short half-day window when pollination must occur. The farmer hand pollinates the orchid blossom. Only in Mexico do they rely on nature, leaving the Melonie Bee and small humming birds to manage pollination.
The vanilla bean remains on the vine for about nine months after the green pods have developed and begin to turn yellow, as they are now mature and ready for harvesting. Vanilla planifolia is only harvested during the months of May to September. Harvesting takes place over several months, as pods will mature at different times during these periods. The key to a good harvest is evident in the farmers ability to recognize the right time to pick the beans.
Blanching / Curing / Drying
Vanilla beans are susceptible to attracting mould and rotting during the sun drying and curing process. To combat this problem, prior to curing, the ripe green beans are blanched in hot water, (not boiling), for several minutes at 140 - 150 F (60 - 65 C). This process terminates any further organic change, keeps the beans from splitting open and from rotting during the curing process. The importance of the correct blanching time is crucial as to how the flavour and colour of the bean will evolve. After blanching, the beans are wrapped in canvas and concealed in wooden boxes for two days where the temperature remains high.
The curing and drying process can take from two to six months to complete. This is another crucial stage that develops the flavour and moisture of the vanilla. The beans are handled ever day during this curing cycle. They are swatted at night and then naturally dried under the hot sun for a few hours every day. If it rains during the day, the farmers must react quickly to bring the vanilla back to dry storage, as rain will inhibit the curing process and lead to the development of mould. This is a long, labour-intensive, painstaking process, but despite this the experienced farmers consistently produce the highest quality vanilla beans.
After the curing process is complete, the farmers will sort the beans according to grade (A, B or C)
Grade A - Whole clean pods - void of dents, splits, tears or marks. Good colour - chocolate brown to black, These are also called 'whole' beans.
Grade B - May have minor dents, splits, tears or marks. Good colour - chocolate brown to black. May be a grade A quality but are classified grade B if small. They may be slightly dryer than grade A, but not in all cases.
Grade C - May have major dents, splits, tears or marks - the colour may range from light brown to black and they have less moisture.
Storing Vanilla Beans
When stored correctly, vanilla beans, like a fine wine and many other fine spices, will actually improve their quality over time. Because it's unlikely that you will able to find the 'ideal' conditions, following these guidelines will keep your vanilla in excellent condition:
- Unpacking - If you receive beans from us in a vacuum pack, we recommend removing them within 6 months of receipt.
- Location - Keep beans in a cool, dark place - never refrigerate or freeze.
- Wrap - Tightly triple wrap in cling film or vacuum packer in small lots, squeezing out as much air as possible.
- Container - Store these wrapped packages in an airtight glass container.
- Airing - As our vanilla is an organic spice, it should be aired regularly, we recommend about 6 times a year. Remove the beans from the container and wrapping to allow them to breathe for about 15 minutes. Re-wrap the beans after airing.
- Dry or mouldy beans - To hydrate or remove light mould, rinse beans gently in luke warm water, but be cautioned that this 'mould' may actually be the valuable 'caviar' content of the bean that has crystalized on the outer skin - in this case do not disturb. If mould appears rampant, discard the beans , as they will contaminate good beans and may become a health hazard.
- Life span - Correctly stored beans may be kept for up to 2 years. However, we recommend buying quantities of beans that you will use within a year.