Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia Jacks. Ex Andrews, 1808) is a climbing liana belonging to the Orchidaceae family.
From a systematic point of view, it belongs to the Eukaryota Domain, Plantae Kingdom, Tracheobionta Subregion, Spermatophyta Superdivision, Magnoliophyta Division, Liliopsida Class, Liliidae Subclass, Orchidales Order, Orchidaceae Family, Vanilloideae Subfamily, Vanilleae Tribe and therefore to the Genus Vanilla and Species V. planif. .
The terms are synonymous:
– Epidendrum rubrum Lam .;
– Myrobroma fragrans Salisb .;
– Notylia planifolia (Jacks. Ex Andrews) Conz .;
– Notylia sativa (Schiede) Conz .;
– Notylia sylvestris (Schiede) Conz .;
– Vanilla aromatica Willd .;
– Vanilla bampsiana Geerinck;
– Vanilla duckei Huber;
– Vanilla fragrans Ames;
– Vanilla planifolia var. narrow;
– Vanilla rubra (Lam.) Urb .;
– Vanilla sativa Schiede;
– Vanilla sylvestris Schiede;
– Vanilla viridiflora Blume.
The term Vanilla derives from the Spanish common name vainilla, small legume, diminutive of vaina legume, pod, derived in turn from vagina sheath.
The specific epithet planifolia comes from planus plan and folium leaf: with flat leaves.
Geographical Distribution and Habitat –
Vanilla is an orchid native to the humid tropical forests of the east coast of Mexico.
The cultivation of this plant, for the production of the spice, has contributed to its spread in most of the humid tropical regions of the world.
Its natural habitat is that of the Mexican tropical undergrowth.
Vanilla planifolia is an epiphytic orchid that climbs larger plants thanks to its adventitious roots, even for more than ten meters.
The plant has cylindrical and leathery stems with little branching which, like very long flexible lianas, which develop vertically.
The leaves are arranged in an opposite way along the branches, elliptical in shape, flat, about 10 cm wide and bright and shiny green. When the leaves break, they release an irritating sap to the skin.
In the vicinity of the hanging of the leaves there are often aerial roots that allow the plant to fix itself to the support and, if necessary, to produce roots.
The orchidaceous flowers, gathered in groups of 8-10, are fragrant and white or yellow-green in color; they have a short duration, as they open in the morning and after a few hours they close to never open again.
Flowering occurs between September and January, depending on the growing area and generally lasts about a month.
Vanilla planifolia begins to bloom only when its liana has reached 3 meters in height.
The fruits that originate from the fertilization of the ovary are green, odorless pods, about 20 cm long and inside they contain thousands of tiny seeds that are released by the explosion of ripe fruits and disseminated in the undergrowth.
Vanilla is a plant that in order to be cultivated needs a warm and humid climate and an anchoring support and a certain shade. Three cultivation techniques are mainly used, from the most extensive to the most intensive:
– in the undergrowth, tree trunks are used as support;
– it is cultivated in catch crops, for example together with sugar canes;
– lastly it is also grown in a greenhouse.
The growers practice pruning, check (or practice) the fixing of the stems, and in particular fold the vines so that the pods are at the correct height (one and a half meters) for easy collection.
For the details of the cultivation technique, see the following sheet.
As regards world production, the relatively small vanilla market aims to satisfy a demand linked to natural authenticity, is subject to climatic risks and financial speculation. Cyclones that frequently hit the eastern part of Madagascar can actually destroy an important part of plants or crops. But prepared vanilla can be stored for many years, so producers, wholesalers and traders can build stocks to cushion price changes or, on the other hand, to take advantage of these changes. According to some estimates, production is around 12,000 tons.
The cultivation areas are located in different humid tropical regions of the world, among which the two main ones, which are Madagascar and Indonesia, represent the world’s largest suppliers.
The products obtained in the south-east area of the Indian ocean are called Vanilla Bourbon (Madagascar, Comoros Islands and Reunion).
In addition, there are some countries that have launched, or relaunched in the production of vanilla: among these we mention Uganda, the state of Kerala in India, Papua New Guinea, the Tonga Islands, etc. In addition, China produces vanilla in the Yunnan province.
As for the varieties, the long Bourbon vanilla pods on the island of Reunion are of superior quality. The transformation technique of Bourbon vanilla is very complex; in order to avoid the loss of essential oil, long experience is required from the manufacturer. Bourbon vanilla goes perfectly with cinnamon, anise, clove, ginger and cardamom.
The Tahiti vanilla pod is dark brown, very fleshy and thick. (The best 15–18 cm long). The scent of Tahiti vanilla is delicate and warm, sweetened like a spice pan, at the same time developing a fruity note with plum. The price of Tahiti vanilla is very high, due to a very limited world production (15 t per year).
The vanilla pod Tahitensis is dark brown, fleshy and thick. the best ones are 18–19 cm long. The scent of Tahitensis vanilla is spicy, warm, with a hint of anise. Tahitensis vanilla produced in Papua New Guinea is considered among the best vanilla in the world.
To be marketable, vanilla beans must be at least 15 centimeters long. The most beautiful fruits, called vanille ménagère (homemade vanilla) are intended for retail sale and must not be broken, have scars or be too dry. A quality pod must be able to be twisted on a finger without being damaged. The best quality is represented by vanille givrée (frosted vanilla): vanillin has crystallized on the surface in light efflorescence. It is vanilla with the most intense and delicate fragrance. The less valuable qualities are intended for wholesale, for the industrial food market or are used for the preparation of vanilla extract or vanilla powder. The vanilla extract is obtained by macerating pods in alcohol, the powder by crushing the pods.
Uses and Traditions –
The history of vanilla production has seen for more than two centuries, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Mexico, and in particular the region of Veracruz, which preserves the vanilla monopoly.
It is the Totonachi (ancient Amerinda population) that remained the first producers until the mid-nineteenth century. All attempts to have this orchid reproduced outside its natural habitat fail.
This was due to the fact that until the 19th century it was not known that melipona bees play a fundamental role in the fertilization and formation of the fruit.
Since its discovery by the Spanish colonists, vanilla has caused a great appreciation in Europe; especially at the French court, where Madame Montespan uses it to perfume the bath water. King Louis XIV, having undergone its “charm”, decided to seriously attempt to introduce it on Bourbon Island (today Reunion), but the various attempts were unsuccessful.
We must wait for 1836 to have the first artificial pollination of vanilla flowers, which took place in the Botanical Garden of Liège by the Belgian naturalist Charles Morren and then, in 1837, by the French orthoculturist Joseph Henri François Neumann.
It is no coincidence that in 1841 a twelve-year-old Bourbon slave, Edmond, developed the practical procedure still used today. This method of pollination, the authorship of which is unjustly claimed by the French botanist Jean Michel Claude Richard, makes the island of Bourbon the first vanilla production center in the world a few decades after the introduction of the orchid on its soil in 1819. With the abolition of slavery, in 1848, Edmond was given the patronymic “d’Albius”, related to the white color of the vanilla flower.
Over the years, vanilla has also been grown on Guadeloupe and Martinique, but with the preference for the agricultural production of sugar cane and banana, it has practically disappeared, like many other species replaced by imported plants.
Around 1880, the farmers of Reunion introduced vanilla cultivation to Madagascar, with the first plantations on the island of Nosy Be. Subsequently, cultivation is also widespread in the eastern regions of the large island, especially in those of Antalaha and Sambava with a favorable humid climate. However, the market, without any control criterion, undergoes cyclical crises of overproduction, with relative collapse in prices.
However that may be, despite the competition from other tropical countries such as Indonesia and the emergence of new products, such as the Indian one in Kerala, Madagascar still retains its role as the world’s leading exporter.
Vanilla is considered by many to be the most delicious of all spices.
The Aztecs used vanilla sticks to flavor their “food of the gods”, chocolate, and it was only after the discovery of the Americas that the Spaniards introduced the aroma of this orchidacea to Europe.
Vanilla was soon attributed to aphrodisiac virtues, both for exotic origins and exposing other theses. Some followers of the “signature” theory, identified the plant’s aphrodisiac effectiveness in assimilating the shape of the bulbs to the male testicles; others instead related the Spanish term “vainilla”, meaning “sheath”, to the female sexual organ.
Vanilla became an exciting nutrient especially in the 1700s, when it became very fashionable with chocolate.
In the following century, scholars identified its stimulating and antiseptic properties that acted on the stomach and organism.
Just at that time the French pharmacologist Barbier dedicated a passionate apology to him where he stated:
“… it is a powerful aphrodisiac because it involves the genital system in general excitement …”
Still at the beginning of the twentieth century, doctors advised the essence to overcome sexual frigidity, and research conducted on workers who worked vanilla would have shown that among the side effects of the professional disease of “vanillism” there was also the incessant excitement sexual, crowned with numerous offspring.
According to more recent studies, vanilla would also act as an antidepressant due to the presence of molecules very similar to human pheromones.
Today the most inspired chefs do not hesitate to use the spice in the most different ways, not only to flavor cocoa, cakes, creams and liqueurs.
For the preparation of vanilla with odorless fruits in a velvety and pleasantly perfumed spice, a meticulous and methodical preparation is necessary, whose principles were developed in Mexico long ago. The simplest method, called “direct preparation”, consists in letting the pod mature, alternating its exposure to shade and sun, but the results are mediocre. We therefore prefer the indirect preparation which consists in causing a violent trauma to the pod to stop its vegetative life (“killing”), followed by a series of transformation, drying and sorting operations that last approximately ten months before obtain a marketable vanilla stick.
To “kill” the pod, it is passed from the oven to the cold, infrared rays, alcohol, etc. However, the most commonly used method today is bathing the pod in hot water. This is how the method developed by Ernest Loupy in 1851 begins, following Mexican knowledge and widely spread by David de Floris.
From an aromatic point of view, natural vanilla develops a complex perfume, made up of multiple types of different aromatic compounds. Among these, however, it is the vanillin molecule (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) that forms and characterizes the aroma of vanilla.
But the history of vanilla had a backlash in 1874, when the German chemist Willhelm Haarmann made the first artificial synthesis of vanillin starting from a substance extracted from the spruce resin.
However, other substances such as eugenol (C10H12O2), extracted from cloves, were discovered for the production of vanillin, from which the production and trade of synthetic vanillin mainly develops.
Over time, synthetic vanillin has become increasingly popular in both the food and cosmetic industries. Thanks to its low production cost, it allows to popularize the aroma of vanilla, but by imposing too strong a competitor on natural vanilla. It is estimated that world production of industrial vanillin is currently around 12,000 tons per year, while all natural vanillin that could be extracted from world production of vanilla would produce only 40 tons per year.
In addition, both with the advent of the synthesis of vanillin and with significant atmospheric phenomena, such as some cyclones that hit Madagascar in 2000, the production of vanilla has undergone significant changes and redistribution of crops and markets.
As far as consumption is concerned, Europeans are the most willing to use natural vanilla, in particular Germany and France (75% of the Bourbon variety), against the United States who consume more vanilla extracts.
Today the demand for vanilla is very differentiated for: agro-food industries, which represent 80-85% of world demand, with industrial chocolatiers, industrial ice cream makers such as Nestlé or Unilever and the beverage industries. So the only decision of Coca-Cola to propose its carbonated vanilla flavored drink (Coca-Cola Vaniglia, called Coca-Cola Vanille in France or Vanilla-Coke in English-speaking countries, which was never marketed), has aroused a 10% increase in global demand. To these are obviously added private individuals, artisan chocolatiers, ice cream makers and cooks, as well as cosmetic industries, for the production of perfumes and other products for the person.
Preparation method –
For the preparation of vanilla pods are fermented and dried, only then do they acquire the brown color and aroma found in the pods that are purchased to flavor the dishes.
Vanilla is used to flavor sweets, sugar, milk and other pastry preparations, but also in savory dishes, especially in Eastern and African cuisines, even if we currently find it more and more also in Italian cuisine. It is also possible to extract essential oil from the pods, and use it directly in the preparations.
It should be remembered that vanillin, which is the main aromatic molecule present in natural vanilla, is commercially available in the form of white or yellowish crystals (if not pure), or liquid extract. It is very convenient because it is used like sugar (crystallized sugar) or by dosing it drop by drop, with the only warning not to overdo it, because to flavor a dessert it takes very little. The risk is to make the dessert cloying and above all to make it bitter.
Obviously compared to natural vanilla, vanillin has a narrower range of aromas: in fact the aroma of natural vanilla is composed of dozens of substances, the main of which is vanillin. The result of the mixture of these substances is a broader aroma bouquet, which gives the sensation of being more elegant, less cloying, less “fake”.
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– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
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– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (edited by), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
Warning: Pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for information purposes only, they do not in any way represent a medical prescription; therefore, no responsibility is accepted for their use for healing, aesthetic or food purposes.