Venturing into Vanilla

The orchid Vanilla planifolia that vanilla comes from

One of my favorite flavorings is vanilla – I mean what would ice cream be without it? As a young kid I was only familiar with vanilla essence, but as I became a better cook I learnt about vanilla extract and vanilla pods. I love learning about the history of ingredients, and find it fascinating to dig into the history of our food. So be warned, here follows a fact filled post on vanilla – more than you could possibly want to know! But I hope that someone finds it as interesting as I do.

I am often on the look out for foodie related books. I was in Bookwise and found book called Vanilla – Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance by Tim Ecott. Which is a fascinating look at the complex history and modern day commercial skullduggery that goes on because of the world’s most popular flavoring.

Where does vanilla come from?

As many foodies will know, vanilla comes from a group of orchids. There are around 150 of them but most commercial vanilla comes from a species called Vanilla planifolia. Vanilla originated in what is today Mexico, and was used by the Totonac people. This is where they believed it came from: they have a legend of a princess called Tzacopontziza (the Morning Star), who had to stay pure as she was dedicated to the god of fertility. Of course there was a young hunk that could not contain his desire for her and they eloped a la Romeo and Juliette. Sadly they were thwarted and killed. The vanilla orchid is said to have grown from where their blood fell and the flower is a symbol of the princess’s purity, while the scent of vanilla is meant to be an expression of her soul. The word vanilla comes from the word meaning sheath and is closely related to the word vagina. How is it that food and sex seem to go together so often?

Today Madagascar produces around 60% of the world’s vanilla supply, most of which ends up in the United States. The annual global production of vanilla is only about two thousand tonnes which is not a lot considering the demand. That is why much of the vanilla flavouring is a synthetic.

Nielsen-Massey Vanilla is considered some of the best

How is vanilla grown?

Vanilla is one of the worlds most expensive and difficult crops to grow. This is why it is the second most expensive spice after saffron. The orchids only occur in specific climactic conditions in the tropics. It can take eight years for a vanilla orchid to reach fruit bearing age. The orchid flowers for a single day, and there is an eight hour window in which the orchids have to be hand pollinated. The growers then have to wait nine months for the fruit to develop. Then the pods are hand harvested, and dunked in boiling water, before going through a complicated process of sweating and cooling and drying. It takes up to nine months of curing to create the substance called vanillin, which is where the flavour and fragrance comes from – fresh vanilla has no scent. Vanilla is one of the most complicated substances known to man, and we have never made a substitute that successfully replicates it. The flavour of real vanilla is made up of over 250 organic components, which gives it great depth and complexity. Artificial vanilla has one flavour component.

What is the best vanilla for cooking?

Vanilla is a bit like wine in that vanilla produced in different regions will taste slightly different. The most popular gourmet vanilla is bourbon vanilla. Bourbon refers to vanilla that is produced from the Indian Ocean Islands of Madagascar, the Comoros, and Réunion. There has also been growing interest in Tahitian vanilla which is from a different species and is considered fruitier. These days Mexico is getting back in the game and gourmands insist on spicy Mexican vanilla, which is very hard to come by.


Vanillaman is a local importer of Bourbon Vanilla

Vanilla in South Africa


Most of the vanilla in the shops will be labelled essence and this is a synthetic product that is nothing like the real thing. Here in South Africa, good quality vanilla is becoming more readily available, and you can find products from suppliers such as Vanilla Man or Nielsen-Massey. Nielsen Massey are one of the worlds largest processors of vanillas, they have been in business for over a hundred years and are considered to produce some of the best vanilla. You should buy good quality vanilla extract or quality vanilla paste. These are the best ways to get great flavour. Using the pods split is also good, but you have to give them time to infuse.


Well I think that’s more than enough for now – some vanilla inspired recipes to follow!


About michoenglish87

A wannabe foodie who loves trying new recipes and trying new ingredients. I hope to inspire people to try new things in the kitchen.
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