Vanilla Blossoms at Sunrise, Only to Die in the Evening

It arouses memories of childhood in us. It adds a touch of magic to desserts such as ice cream, cakes and crèmes. It dampens the flavour of other spices, tempers bitterness and adds charm to cocktails. It can be found in perfumes and candle and tobacco fragrances. How did it end up on our tables? Why are its flowers pollinated by hand? What is vanillism? How much do you know about vanilla, one of the noblest and most expensive spices in the world?

A romantic story imbued with vanilla

Vanilla

Photo: Dalton Holland Baptista, Wikimedia Commons

The Pre-Columbian Totonac Indians from Mexico were the first to discover vanilla’s secrets. According to their mythology, this tropical orchid first appeared when Princess Xanat, having failed to gain her father’s consent to marry a mortal, sought refuge with her lover in a forest. In the end, the lovers were apprehended and murdered. Their still-beating hearts were laid on the altar and their bodies thrown into an abyss. Shortly afterwards, at the scene of the crime, an orchid grew at the exact point where their blood touched the ground. It blossomed very briefly, only for as long as this pair’s love lasted – barely a few hours. In the 15th century, the Totonac people were conquered by the Aztecs. The conquerors quickly acquired a taste for vanilla, calling the orchid “Tlilxochitl” (which means “Black Flower”) on account of the flowers, which, after picking, quickly changed colour to black. This commodity was so much in demand that the Totonac people paid the Aztecs their tribute by sending vanilla pods to their capital, Tenochtitlan.

The “One Reed” year in which Cortez ousted Montezuma II

The year is 1519. The Aztecs are ruled by Montezuma II – an indecisive ruler who bows to the pressure of prophecies. Surrounded by soothsayers who have been predicting the coming of one of the gods, he welcomes the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez and his entourage with open arms. They do in fact arrive on the Mexican coast on the forecast day (8 Wind) and expected year (the so-called One Reed year).

During the feast Montezuma II gives in honour of Cortez (in the full conviction that he is a god), the Spaniards are offered the Aztecs’ favourite beverage. This was xocolatl, i.e. today’s chocolate, in liquid form prepared from cocoa with the addition of fragrant vanilla to temper the bitter flavour of the cocoa infusion. The Spaniards were so taken by this chocolatl that they took it back with them to their fatherland. The Mayans, however, mixed chocolate with chilli during the preparation of a drink which Cortes and his retinue were quite unable to drink.

For the Aztecs, vanilla pods and cocoa grains were both so valuable that they used them as currency, and xocolatl was exclusively reserved for the most important people.

As for Montezuma II’s escapade with Cortez, well…….. The former paid for it with his life. The Empire of the Aztecs fell shortly afterwards, but that’s a totally different story…

What a brazen hussy!

The drink swiftly reached Europe, where it quickly became fashionable but was reserved for the nobility due to the high cost of its main ingredients. Regarded by the Aztecs as an aphrodisiac, vanilla enchanted the courts of European kings in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly the French court during the reigns of Louis XII and Louis XIV.

Chocolate The Church defended itself from vanilla as much as it could. Fear of the properties of vanilla, which was mainly treated at the time as a method of increasing sex drive, contributed to the creation of ecclesiastical laws prohibiting the clergy from consuming chocolate containing vanilla.

At the European courts, chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac lasted for a long time. In the 18th century, if a man invited a lady to a nocturnal chocolate drinking session, it would have left her in absolutely no doubt as to his intentions. Casanova and the Marquis de Pompadour drunk chocolate heavily aromatised with vanilla, in order to stimulate their passion or their partner’s lust.

Vanilla’s flirtation with medicine. Absolute nonsense!

Nicolas de Blegny

Nicolas de Blegny

Up until the mid-19th century vanilla was generally treated as a medicine and could mainly be found in apothecaries. We already know that it was mainly regarded as a sex drive enhancer. But it should be noted that vanilla was also considered to be an excellent stimulant, warming agent, refresher, tonic and diuretic.

In 1687, Nicolas de Blegny extolled the beneficial effects of using vanilla to treat pulmonary disease and combat the effects of venom poisoning. Later, it was no longer applied in medicine, for it turned out that it was not working as well as expected as an aphrodisiac. As far as pulmonary diseases and venom poisoning were concerned, it is quite clear that these ideas died a natural death.

Traditional medicine endows vanilla with antiseptic and stimulant properties, especially in relation to the gall bladder. However, since we have a sceptical approach to natural medicine, please treat this comment as more of a curiosity. Let’s conclude the topic of vanilla’s flirtation with medicine by mentioning that many medicines are flavoured with vanilla these days. We are not going to expand on this, as we have no faith in vanilla’s purported medical properties and don’t want it to turn out later that we’ve been taken in.

Vanillism

This ungrateful vanilla not only fails to help, but can actually harm us! Charles Deleclus, to whom I owe the first description of vanilla, dating from 1602, noticed that the odour of benzoin resin, which is detectable in vanilla, can cause headaches if it is breathed in for too long. Workers in vanilla plantations do in fact frequently fall victim to a complaint known as vanillism. Its symptoms include headaches, gastrointestinal problems, erythema, hives and peeling fingers.

Because I’m a busybody

Queen Elisabeth I’s apothecary was the first to use vanilla to flavour chocolate and tobacco. Its application as a flavouring was later expanded to incorporate confectionary products, crèmes, sweets, aspics and ice creams. This is also how it used today. Desserts, liqueurs, cakes…ah! – there’s nothing like that aroma wafting through the air and developing a flavour to the full. 

VanillaVanilla perfectly complements coconut, almonds and green lemon. It is used to flavour coffees and teas. It goes well with cinnamon, cocoa and nutmeg. It is increasingly appearing as an ingredient in meat dishes. It also combines superbly with fish and shellfish, poultry and veal and carrot fricassees.

It is often employed in the cosmetics industry.

Known for their softening, moisturising and toning properties, vanilla-based cosmetics are very delicate and sensual. Vanilla fragrance is also appreciated by the perfume industry. The fashion for appetising perfumes has led to vanilla being combined with cinnamon. According those blessed with a sensitive nose, the scent of these perfumes can resemble skin odour or a well-matured cognac. Vanilla adds body to perfumes. The most famous perfumes containing a note of vanilla achieved through synthetic vanillin include Calvin Klein Obsession, Opium by Yves Saint Laurent, Le Classique by Jean-Paul Gaultier, Dior Addict and Elle Paco Rabanne.

Sorry, but why is it so expensive?

Everything in this case is large… The seedlings used to propagate vanilla sometimes reach 4 metres in length. The vanilla lianas, which climb around tree trunks or specially prepared scaffolding poles, attain a length of between 10 and 15 metres. Vanilla leaves stretch to 22 cm in length. Even its flowers are big – they have petals measuring from 5 to 7 cm and are concentrated in large clusters (of 20 to 30 flowers). It would appear that since everything is large, there should be a lot of everything. And the more there are, the cheaper they should be. But this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is where we get brought down to earth. With a zonk!

From the moment the vanilla blossoms, the hard part begins. Why?

Well, because the flowers of this orchid only open for one day. Apart from this, they can only be pollinated by certain hummingbirds or bees of the Melipona or Trigona genera, which are equipped with long proboscises and only occur in Mexico. The pollination itself is by no means simple. The insects’ body structure or bird’s beak need to be closely matched to the shape and size of the flower, so not all of the vanilla flowers gathered in large inflorescences are pollinated and therefore not all of them bear fruit.

Fresh vanilla

Fresh vanilla. Photo: Sunil Elias Wikimedia Commons

It’s true that in some regions where vanilla cultivation is widespread, the flowers are pollinated by hand. The women engaged in this process, known as matchmakers, pollinate 2000 flowers a day. They achieve this with the aid of a thorn from a lemon tree or a thin twig.

For three months, day after day, they transfer pollen from one vanilla flower to another. That’s what you call manual labour! At this point, only a few flowers from the whole inflorescence are actually pollinated. Otherwise, the fruit produced from all the flowers would be too small and of a lower quality.

Afterwards, the fruit ripen and ripen… And the waiting goes on and on, from 4 to 9 months after pollination, until they finally reach maturity.

Fresh vanilla pods, which resemble ordinary runner beans, are completely odourless. The aroma only appears after the pods are subjected to a fermentation process during which the vanilla turns to brown and begins to smell sweet. The vanilla fragrance comes from the vanillin component. Vanillin settles on the pod surface in the form of crystals. This crystalline efflorescence is called “vanilla frost”. Lest there be any doubt – nothing happens by magic at this stage either. Many times a day, the pods are exposed to the sun, then the withered fruit are placed in airtight boxes, then exposed to the sun again, then put back in the boxes, then sun, boxes, sun, boxes, tightly packed, then sorted – and this is repeated for around a fortnight or several weeks. But the end result is worth the effort.

Drying vanilla. Photo: Bouba, Wikimedia Commons

Drying vanilla. Photo: Bouba, Wikimedia Commons

That’s why it’s so expensive. If you don’t want to break the bank, I recommend heading to your local grocery for some vanilla sugar! A mediocre vanilla substitute, but at least it’s reasonably priced

Vanilla is like wine. The older, the better

The best vanilla secretes vanillin during the “ageing process”, and this crystallises and covers the vanilla pod with a thin film that exudes an exceptional aroma. Vanilla is notable for possessing the most pleasant and refined flavour of all the spices, which automatically sets it in the place of honour. Its aroma is composed of 200 aromatic substances! Nothing will ever replace the aroma of a real fermented and cured vanilla pod and vanilla could not be added in any other form to the most famous premium products.

  • Mexican vanilla – regarded as the highest quality strain. It is the most delicate of all. Very aromatic.
  • Bourbon vanilla, which comes from Madagascar and Réunion, is used most frequently, although its aroma is not as subtle and pungent as its predecessors.
  • Tahitian vanilla has a more potent aroma, but a less distinctive flavour.
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