Vanilla and its flower
Vanilla planifolia is the official scientific name of the most popular vanilla plant in gastronomy. Also called vanilla, it is a tropical orchid native to Mexico and very delicate in the form of vine. It is the only orchid whose fruit is edible.
Vanilla needs a supporting plant acting as a shade tree and grows in humid tropical areas undergrowth. Its fruits, called pods, produce a spice also called vanilla.
There are about a hundred vanilla species but only two others are also used to produce the spice: vanilla Tahiti (Vanilla tahitensis) and vanilla (Vanilla pompona). The other varieties are only grown for ornamental reasons.
Etymologically, the vanilla name derives from the Spanish vainilla itself from the Latin vagina which also gave vagina and means sheath, pod or holster.
Soft and unbranched, the vanilla liana develops by growth of the terminal bud and can reach more than ten meters in height. It is a plant that is cut very easily thanks to the aerial roots located at the nodes of insertion of the leaves and the stem and which also allow it to cling to its support.
The leaves are alternately arranged on each side of the stem. They are flat and oval with pointed tips, about three times longer than they are wide and can measure up to fifteen centimeters. The stem and leaves are green, fleshy, full of a transparent and irritating juice causing persistent burns and itching on the skin.
The vanilla flower
The flowers are grouped by eight or ten and form small bunches in the axils of the leaves. They only bloom a single day and rarely more than one mature flower at the same time. White, greenish or pale yellow, they have the classic structure of an orchid flower despite a fairly regular appearance.
Important particularity, its fertilization could not have lieus without intervention of an external intermediary: it is carried out naturally in its region of origin by bees endemic of the Melipona genus. Far from its original environment, its fertilization must be done manually.
After fertilization, the ovary that acted as a peduncle (the stem at the base of the flower) is transformed into a pendulous pod 12 to 25 centimeters long. These green and odorless pods have a diameter of 7 to 10 millimeters and already contain thousands of tiny seeds. They are then released by bursting fruit at maturity. However, to develop the spice that we know, the pods are harvested green before maturity and undergo a special treatment.
Production of vanilla
The preparation of the vanilla takes place over a period of about six months. It requires a lot of patience, rigor and know-how, because it consists in promoting the development of the aroma and making the pod suitable for long-term preservation. Vanilla needs a tropical, humid and hot climate. It is usually grown in forests with trees as a support.
It can naturally reach up to 10 meters in height. To avoid having to climb too high during the harvest, it is important to guide the vine so that it does not rise too high.
Outside its country of origin, the vanilla flower must be fertilized manually. This is a daily observation job for the grower as it only blooms for one day during a period of about 2 months.
It involves delicately cutting down the rostellum with a spine, then exerting a slight pressure on the flower so that the pollen sprinkles and fertilizes the female organs. The operation must be performed the same day of flowering on the most vigorous flowers of the ear. The flower blooms at sunrise and lasts only a few hours. The “marriage” must be done quickly in the morning. Accuracy and speed are required because there are hundreds of thousands of flowers in the plantation. We must marry the most flowers possible to obtain a good crop of pods.
8 months after fertilization, the green pods are finally ready to be harvested.
It will take about 5 kilos of green vanilla to get 1 kilo of processed vanilla.
The first treatment of green vanilla is a short immersion of about 3 minutes in hot water at 62 degrees to stop any organic evolution.
Then the pods are draped in jute blankets to sweat and lose some of its moisture. After 1 to 2 days, this process causes a fermentation that gives the vanilla a brownish appearance.
The pods are then sun-dried for about 2 weeks to stop any fermentation process.
The pods thus obtained are then classified according to their quality and length.
Once classified, they are grouped into boots of the same length using a string of raffia. It is then coated in waxed paper and stored in hermetically sealed tin boxes.
The vanilla thus obtained is finally ready to be sold for our greatest happiness!