Vanilla is a flavouring derived from the pods of orchids of the genus Vanilla, primarily from the Mexican species, flat-leaved Vanilla. According to Totonac mythology, the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew.
Once it was discovered that the orchids could be pollinated by hand, the production of Vanilla thrived and by 1898, Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros Islands produced 200 metric tons of Vanilla Beans; about 80% of world production. Vanilla grows best in a hot, humid climate with loose, highly organic and loamy textured soil. The plants must be well drained and grown on a slight slope helps this condition. As with most orchids, the blossoms grow along stems branching from the main vine usually in the spring. Vanilla grows by climbing up an existing tree, called a tutor, a pole, or other support. It can be grown in a wood on trees, in a plantation on trees or poles, or in a “shader”. Left alone, it will grow as high as possible on the support, with few flowers. Every year, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downward so the plant stays at heights accessible, which also greatly stimulates flowering. The seed capsule will ripen and open as it dries and releases the distinctive Vanilla smell. To ensure the finest flavour from every fruit, each individual pod must be picked by hand just as it begins to split on the end. Once fully cured, the Vanilla fruits are sorted by quality and graded.
The word Vanilla, simply translates as little pod. This spice is the second most expensive after Saffron, because the growing of this plant is extremely labour intensive. Vanilla is used both commercially in the perfume and aromatherapy industry and domestically in baking. There are different varieties of Vanilla and the pods can be used to flavour food such as custard and ice cream.
There are three main commercial preparations of natural Vanilla:
Powder (ground pods, kept pure or blended with sugar, starch, or other ingredients)
Extract (in alcoholic or occasionally glycerol solution; both pure and imitation forms of vanilla contain at least 35% alcohol)
Vanilla flavouring in food may be achieved by adding Vanilla Extract or by cooking Vanilla Pods in the liquid preparation. A stronger aroma may be attained if the pods are split in two, exposing more of a pod’s surface area to the liquid. In this case, the pods’ seeds are mixed into the preparation. Natural Vanilla gives a brown or yellow colour to preparations, depending on the concentration. Good quality Vanilla has a strong aromatic flavour, but food with small amounts of low quality Vanilla or artificial Vanilla-like flavourings are far more common, since true Vanilla is much more expensive.
Studies show all you need to calm down quickly is the smell of Vanilla. A study reported that people became 63% less claustrophobic after getting exposed to the aroma of pure Vanilla. There was no change in their heart rate, so obviously, the aroma reduced their anxiety, possibly by the pleasant memories evoked by the Vanilla aroma or by some other physiological response.
Vanilla’s fragrance is also known to improve one’s confidence and helps to dissolve pent-up anger and frustration. It is consoling and can unleash hidden, often subconscious, sensuality.
Vanilla is excellent in aromatherapy; to scent candles, to freshen pot-pourri, making soaps, for massage and bath oils and especially for body perfume. Try dabbing little Vanilla extract on your wrists, or take a bath scented with a little real Vanilla extract for some essential relaxation.