Vanilla's Elusive Essence

In its natural state, the Central American creeper betrays not the slightest whiff
of the aromatic experience concealed within. Chance, circumstance and invention
combined to bring us this most potent of natural flavourings
he harbingers of high summer fruits, these bittersweet crimson clusters signify a beginning to lazy days of sunshine and indulgence.

By Connie Phillipson
Athens News

VANILLA is perhaps the only member of that large family of orchids which is desirable for something other than its flowers. Vanilla planifolia or fragrans, not to be confused with the Vanilla-plant or Deer’s tongue, is a native of tropical Central America and the northern part of South America. The genus is known to consist of some 20 species of climbing creepers, with greenish white flowers and thin, 10-15cm long pods, containing a plethora of tiny seeds. Two or three of these species provide commercial vanilla, but by far the most exquisite aroma comes from the plant V planifolia.

What is strange is that neither the plant, nor its flowers, nor its pods in their natural state, betray the slightest whiff that such an aromatic experience could be concealed within. Although the flowers of the plant are hermaphroditic, their peculiar structure does not readily allow fertilisation, but requires the intervention of bees, hummingbirds and ants. Even after fertilisation and the production of the pod there is still no sign of the aroma that was to captivate the world.

As the eminent 19th century scholar William H. Prescott relates in his book The Conquest of Mexico and Peru, the drink of chocolate offered by the Aztecs to the newly-arrived Hernando Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors was flavoured with tlilxochitl, the Aztec name for vanilla. The latter is a corruption of the diminutive of the Spanish word vaina, meaning a sheath or, in this case, a pod. By this time, the tropical creeper was cultivated not only in Mexico, but also in Venezuela, Columbia and Guiana.

But it was not the Aztecs who found out that the pod of the tropical creeper had the capability of enhancing their favourite chocolate drink. That breakthrough was made by the Totonacs, who came from what is today the Mexican state of Vera Cruz. They discovered, perhaps at first accidentally, that when the initially tasteless and odourless beans were exposed to the sun for two or three weeks under certain conditions, and then carefully dried for a number of months, the production of vanillin (an aromatic aldehyde and the chief flavour and scent ingredient of the pods) was kick-started.

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The Spaniards took both chocolate and vanilla to the Old World, but it proved impossible to produce the aromatic substance from the plants they grew. The plants could be multiplied by cuttings, but required fertilisation to produce a pod.

The problem was finally solved by the French. In 1830, in the greenhouses of the Museum of Paris, a talented gardener called Neumann invented an artificial pollination technique. This system required fine skills, and was entrusted to a team of women gardeners who could pollinate about one thousand flowers in a ten-hour day. Later the plant was taken to the island of La Reunion, thence to the Mascarene and Comoros Islands, then on to Madagascar, Mauritius, Ceylon, Java, Haiti – virtually circling the globe with its now familiar scent.

But vanilla produced from the orchids of V planifolia was prohibitively expensive for the majority of its uses. To lower the price of the aroma, German chemists produced ethylvanillin in 1874, which happens to be a viable substitute, with a scent closely resembling the original. This is probably one of the most frequently used artificial flavourings.

However, the artificial product has a flat aroma and an undesirable aftertaste that makes it easily distinguishable from the real thing. If genuine vanilla is the object of your search, look for “vanilla extract” on the label of an American product. US law allows this label to be used only with the real vanilla.

R e c i p e s

Vanilla pie

½ cup brown sugar
1 tbs flour
¼ cup molasses or maple syrup
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
1 egg, beaten
1 cup of water
1 cup of flour
½ cup brown sugar
½ tsp cream of tartar
½ tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
¼ cup butter
1 unbaked 23cm pie shell
cup of bread crumbs

Combine the first five ingredients in a saucepan. Slowly stir in
water. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil,
stirring constantly. Let cool. Combine the rest of the ingredients,
except the pie shell and mix until crumbly. Pour cooled mixture
into pie shell and top with crumbs. Bake at 175C for about
40 minutes or until golden brown.

Vanilla peanut butter fudge

2 cups brown sugar
½ cup milk
4 tbs peanut butter
1 tsp vanilla extract

Boil sugar, milk and salt until it forms a hard ball when
dropped in cold water. Remove from fire, add peanut butter and
beat until thick and creamy. Add vanilla. Pour onto a buttered
pan and let cool. Cut into squares. You can add melted chocolate
squares and ½ cup nuts for a chocolate fudge.

Honey vanilla oat bran muffins
(Yields 12)

2 ¼ cups oat bran
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp each baking soda & cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ cup each raisins & chopped nuts
1 (250g) low-fat yoghurt
6 tbs honey
2 egg whites
2 tbs oil
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 200C. Combine dry ingredients in large mixing
bowl. Stir in raisins and nuts until well coated. Combine liquid
ingredients with dry ingredients just until moistened. Divide
batter evenly between twelve paper cup lined muffin cups. Bake
15 to 18 minutes, or until wooden pick inserted in centre comes out
clean. Serve warm or cold.