The second most expensive spice in the world after saffron is Vanilla . It is a flavoring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla, primarily from the Mexican species, flat-leaved vanilla (V. planifolia).
Vanilla is known as the Queen of Spices, largely because of the time and effort required for its preparation. This spice, comparable to wine or chocolate, will not reveal itself in the same way depending on its terroir.
There are three botanical vanilla species on the market:
- Planifolia vanilla, the most common species (Mexico, Reunion, Comoros, Madagascar, Uganda, Tanzania, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tonga…) whose main component is vanillin;
- Tahitensis vanilla (French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea) mainly composed of helyothrope (anisic component);
- The Pompona vanilla known as Vanillon, with strong notes of coumarin. Originally found in the found in the West Indies, Central America, and South America. It has practically disappeared.
The majority of the world’s vanilla is the V. planifolia species. We know this more commonly as Bourbon vanilla (after the former name of Réunion, Île Bourbon) or Madagascar vanilla, produced in Madagascar and neighboring islands in the southwestern Indian Ocean. In addition, also Indonesia produces vanilla. Combined, Madagascar and Indonesia produce two-thirds of the world’s supply of vanilla.
Vanilla is the fruit (the pod) of a climbing orchid native to Mexico and which is cultivated today in Reunion, Madagascar, Comoros and Tahiti. The most appreciated is the vanilla of Mexico, followed by that of Reunion Island and Madagascar which is also called “bourbon” vanilla.
The word vanilla comes from vainilla, the diminutive of the Spanish word vaina (vaina itself meaning a sheath or a pod). You can translate it simply as “little pod”. Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people cultivated the vine of the vanilla orchid, called tlīlxochitl by the Aztecs. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés introduced both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s.
It is a liana that can reach 100 m and attaches itself to trees like ivy.
The vanilla bean is about 15 to 20 cm long.
Vanilla is a coveted perfume and watch out: not all vanilla products are necessarily made with natural vanilla. There are completely synthetic (vanillin) and highly concentrated vanilla flavors, in the form of syrup, extract or flavoured sugar.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron because growing the vanilla seed pods is labor-intensive. Despite the cost, people highly value for its flavor. As a result, we widely use vanilla in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacture, and aromatherapy.
It was the Totonaques, occupying the coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico around the present cities of Veracruz and Papantla, who produced vanilla (Planifolia species) and supplied it to the Aztec Empire.
The Spaniards discovered vanilla at the beginning of the 16th century during their conquest of the American continent. It is linked to the arrival of the Spaniards in Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City, and to the meeting in 1519 of Hernán Cortés with the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II, whose customs Sahagún describes, in particular the use of vanilla to flavour his chocolate, accompanied by honey, corn and chilli pepper.
For more than two centuries, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Mexico, particularly the region of Veracruz, retained a monopoly on vanilla.
Brought back from Spain, vanilla crossed borders and became a real craze in Europe. In particular, it is increasingly appreciated at the French court. In 1692, a Royal Edict established a monopoly on the sale of vanilla in France. Under the reign of Louis XIV, he decided to try cultivating them in the greenhouses of the Paris Museum. The various attempts failed.
Vanilla is also reported in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyana in 1724 (Pompona species). Vanilla was cultivated for a long time in Guadeloupe and Martinique; but with the refocusing of agriculture on sugar cane and bananas, it practically disappeared – like many other once flourishing species – to be replaced by imports .
At the beginning of the 19th century, vanilla arrived in Bourbon (Reunion Island).
In 1848, Admiral Hamelin imported Vanilla Odorata plants to Tahiti and two years later Admiral Bonnard imported Planifolia vanilla plants. These two varieties of plants would have been exported by Spanish galleons to the Philippines. It was in the 19th century that they crossed the Pacific again and were imported to Tahiti in 1848 by General Hamelin and 1850 by Admiral Bonnard. The hybridization of these two species gave birth to the species Tahitensis.
Known for several centuries for its aphrodisiac virtues, vanilla is above all tonic and relaxing. It is recommended in case of mental or physical fatigue, and its effectiveness against insomnia has been proven.
For people with little appetite, vanilla is an aperitif before being a digestive. Rich in antioxidants, it helps against cell ageing (polyphenols). So in addition to being an excellent aromatic plant, regularly used in cooking, it has important medicinal virtues.
Is is relaxing and an antidepressant. Vanilla calms stress and can also be used in case of insomnia. It is also recommended against hysteria or episodes of melancholy.
It is used in the form of a bean, “vanilla” sugar or liquid flavouring. It is of course found in many desserts, desserts, hot drinks such as chocolate or coffee, ice cream and basic creams such as custard or Bavarian cream.
But it can be used in very small quantities in savoury dishes based on veal, lobster or scallops.
Nowadays, it must be acknowledged that only top-of-the-range products contain real vanilla. The others are flavoured with ethyl-vanillin, a synthetic flavouring, and are also often added with residues of crushed vanilla beans, which give the illusion of using real vanilla.