Though vanilla has gained the reputation for being boring or plain, there is nothing boring about the exotic epiphyte that delivers us one of the most delicious and appreciated flavors in the world.
Vanilla beans are harvested from the only edible fruit produced by the Orchidaceae family. Discovered by the Ancient Aztec people of Mexico, the bean pods of the Vanilla planifolia release a perfumed essence after a careful process of steaming and fermentation.
Like many orchids, the vanilla bean orchid is an epiphyte -it lives on a host tree without drawing nutrients from it. The vine grows up to the treetops in a zigzag fashion with long and narrow leaves. Each blooming branch will bear one to two dozen creamy white blooms. A mature vine will produce several hundred flowers.
Vanilla extract is made by dissolving vanilla beans in alcohol, which renders a rich, brown colored liquid with an enticing flavor and a powerful scent. The high alcohol content is greatly reduced when the vanilla extract is exposed to high temperatures during cooking or baking. Even though most vanilla extract is around 40% alcohol, it is still sold in grocery stores rather than liquor stores.
Natural vanilla contains numerous antioxidants including vanillic acid and vanillin. These serve to minimize inflammation and swelling in the body. Historically, vanilla has been used to calm stomach pains, reduce fever, relieve stress, reduce joint pain, and reduce nausea.
Since the devastation of 30% of Madagascar’s vanilla crop earlier this year from the tropical storm Enawo, the prices of vanilla have skyrocketed, and quality has fallen, as farmers are forced to pick immature bean pods or inferior ones. Despite these setbacks, age old vanilla companies will power through and do everything they can to meet the growing needs for the intoxicating and irresistible flavor of vanilla.