Friday, April 25, 2014

V is for Vanilla: Yummy Fruits A-Z

Vanilla orchids bloom for one day (or less!)
Vanilla has been called the "cheese pizza of ice cream." Where would we be without this basic ingredient that flavors our favorite foods and adds ambiance to our worlds and homes with its sweet perfume? 

The vanilla bean (or pod), from which vanilla is derived, is the fruit of the vanilla orchid. It is the only edible plant in the orchid family, and only native to Mexico. It was first cultivated by Mexico's Tononac people, who in the 15th century were later conquered by the Aztecs. Legends and myths about the vanilla plant have long existed in their culture.

Vanilla plants grow on vines,
often climbing trees in wild.
The vanilla orchid has a unique
characteristic that affected its history and distribution for centuries. It can only be pollinated by Mexico's Melipone bee, and efforts to relocate this bee have never been successful. 

This was first discovered by the Spanish explorer Cortes in the early 1500s, when the plants he took back to Spain failed to produce fruit. It is the sole reason Mexico became the center of vanilla production, a monopoly that lasted for 300 years.

Edmond Albius

In 1841, a young twelve-year-old slave named Edmond Albius changed all that. He was living on a French island in the Indian Ocean at the time, and had discovered a way to hand pollinate the vanilla flower. Although labor-intensive, the technique caused a global explosion in vanilla production outside of Mexico. In fact, it became so competitive that so-called "vanilla rustlers" began robbing and fighting for world domination. 

- Vanilla plantation -
La Reunion Island, Guatemala
Today, in addition to Mexico, vanilla is grown in Madagascar, Indonesia, China, Papua New Guinea, Turkey, Tonga, Uganda, Fiji, Tahiti, Comoros, Guatemala, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and India, Madagascar and Indonesia being the two top producers.

Considered also a spice, vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron). All is due to the labor-intensive method still required to pollinate the vanilla orchid flower, but there are other factors, too. Vanilla plants can only be grown within 20 degrees of the equator. 

Added to this, orchid flowers bloom for one day only (sometimes less), so the timing of pollination is critical! 

Vanilla beans are dried to process.
The tiny seeds inside are flavorless,
and often seen in vanilla bean
ice cream (as black specks)
It explains why vanilla is still so expensive and why 97% of vanilla used today as a flavoring and
fragrance is artificial. Imitation vanilla is made from a wood byproduct called lignin. In tastes test, most people cannot tell the difference in baked goods, but in cold or unbaked foods, they notice a difference in the taste. 

An FDA approved non-plant substitute in the U.S. called castoreum (from castor sacs of beavers, a type of scent gland) is also used. It is often referenced as "natural flavoring" on the label, and commonly used in foods, beverages, cigarettes and perfumes. Personally, after reading all this, I'm going to stick to pure vanilla when cooking at home. As for the rest, all we can really do is avoid processed foods. 

Do you use artificial or pure vanilla extract?

Vanilla comes in the following forms:
  • pure vanilla extract - from beans soaked in alcohol and water
  • vanilla powder - from dried pure extract or beans, pulverized
  • vanilla bean - the orchid fruit (buy dark, almost black in color, and slightly moist); beans should last five years, if stored away from light and heat (do not freeze)
  • vanilla sugar - sugar flavored by vanilla beans
  • vanilla paste - from pure extract and bean seed in syrup 

Dried vanilla beans
Besides vanilla's use as a flavoring in foods and beverages, it is used in perfumes and medicines. In aromatherapy, it has been used to soothe nerves, to uplift the spirit, and as an aid in losing weight. Folk remedies include its use as an aphrodisiac and a treatment for fevers. 

Vanilla Recipes

"Easy Vanilla Sugar"

Fill large jar with sugar. Break up vanilla bean into three pieces. Press into the sugar and let sit for several weeks.

"Yummy Vanilla Custard"

2 cups milk
1 vanilla pod (bean)
3 eggs
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 cup stiffly whipped cream

--In heavy saucepan, add milk and vanilla pod. Heat to under boiling point and remove from burner. (Wipe vanilla pod dry and store. You can use again another time)
--In medium bowl, beat eggs until lemon-colored. Pour small amount of hot milk over eggs, stirring constantly. 
--Add mixture to remaining milk in saucepan and cook, stirring constantly over low heat for 20 minutes (until thick). Remove from heat, stir in sugar. Let cool. Then fold in whipped cream gradually.
(Note: one teaspoon vanilla extract can be substituted for vanilla pod. Add to sauce after removing from heat. Use as sauce or custard.  

Vanilla Joke

Vanilla Books

--Pure Vanilla: Irresistible Recipes and Essential Techniques 
by Sauna Sever and Leigh Beisch (2012)

--Vanilla Orchards: Natural 
History and Cultivation 
by Ken Cameron (2011)

--I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World  by Marguerite Wright (2000)

--Vanilla: Travels in Search of
the Ice Cream Orchard 
by Tim Ecott (2005)

Vanilla Movie

--Vanilla Sky (2001) (trailer)
starring Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, 
Cameron Diaz and Kurt Russell

Vanilla Song

--Vanilla Twilight by Owl City (2010)



  1. This is such an informative post - i never knew they were an orchid, flowered for only one day or had such a fascinating history. I use vanilla pods and once I have extracted the seeds I put the remaining pod in a glass bottle and add a little vodka. After a few weeks it becomes the most affordable vanilla essence that can be added to most things.
    Reflex Reactions

    1. Definitely worth using the real thing, too. Thanks, Ida.

  2. Vanilla's awesome, as is that song from Owl City... ;)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Heather. Thanks for visiting.

  3. The info on artificial vanilla extract is a little disturbing. Guess I will be buying the good stuff from now on.

    1. Same here. I'll be a different shopper next time around.

  4. Very interesting post. I had no idea vanilla came from a bean. Guess I never thought about it before. Thanks for teaching me something new.

  5. I'm so glad I stopped by. Vanilla is yummy. The only time I've seen it used was on the food network. I love it as a candle scent.

    1. I never grow tired of the scent either. It's my favorite. Thanks, Nana.

  6. I do buy the pure vanilla extract and Vanilla (Zucker) powder when it is called for a german recipe. I had no idea that it was this rare and how critical the timing was to cultivate it. I didn't even know it came from an Orchid plant. Great post!

    1. Good girl! I've been doing it on the cheap....but no more.

  7. I love vanilla ice cream, or vanilla anything -- don't know why 'plain vanilla' is bad.
    Interesting to know all this - had no idea it came from a plant, and I should pay attention where I buy it from.
    Silvia @

    1. Yum....I'm nuts about ice cream too. I always buy vanilla bean when it's available.

  8. I love vanilla--ice cream that is. =D

  9. I have to admit that I use artificial vanilla extract most of the time just because of the cost, but I have received pure vanilla extract as a gift before, and it's amazing!

    1. Now that I know the difference, I'll spend the extra money next time around.

  10. Real vanilla is the best ever. Expensive but worth the money. Real extract is good too. I sometimes make proper vanilla custard.

    1. I am now a vanilla convert. Never realized there was such a difference.

  11. I love, love, love vanilla. I know lots of people think I'm weird because I much prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate.
    Interesting history about the 12 year old slave! I guess it's a safe bet he didn't get to capitalize on his discovery in his lifetime though.

    1. Have always preferred vanilla too...but with chocolate topping :) I wonder if anyone has written his story. Hmm....

  12. I'm a "real" vanilla user. And now I have even more reason to stick with my choice. Thanks! Very interesting history of the vanilla bean.

    1. Good for you....I'm a convert now. Replacing the cheap imitation!

  13. This revelation begs the question who "harvests" this beaver gland essence?
    You bet, I'll stick to the real thing from now on. The alternative is a little unsavory (pun totally intended).

    1. Hi Inge. And GOOD question. I wasn't too happy reading that either.

  14. I didn't realize vanilla was a fruit. It's interesting how it's now considered so "plain" when it's actually so hard to cultivate and is from an orchid. I believe "Good Eats" did an episode on vanilla, and since then I've developed more of an appreciation for it.

    1. I know, isn't that amazing? The second most expensive spice in the world too. Really changes my perspective.


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