Vanilla Beans contain what is considered to be one of the most popular, sought after flavors in the world. While mainly associated as a dessert flavoring for ice cream, pudding, custard, all kinds of baked goods, candy and beverages, Vanilla Beans can be used to enhance all types of food. Vanilla is also used as an enhancement in many high end perfumes and personal styling products. Vanilla Beans have a rich, sweet, woodsy aroma and taste that contributes to their universal popularity.
Vanilla Beans are part of the tropical orchid, Vanilla Planifolia. They are harvested from the plant before it flowers. The Vanilla Beans are not ripe when they are picked and they contain no flavor or smell when they are freshly picked. After they are subjected to a curing process for about six months, they turn from a yellowish, green color to brown and develop an intense, richly scented aroma along with a sweet, creamy, fruitlike flavor making them ready for consumption. Due to the labor intensive pollination, harvesting and long fermentation process, Vanilla is the third most expensive spice after Cardamom and Saffron.
Vanilla has a rich, interesting history. Vanilla burst on to the scene in Mexico where the Totonaco Indians were the harvesters of Vanilla Beans. When they were conquered by the Aztecs, they were forced to surrender their valuable Vanilla Beans. Montezuma, the Mexican Emperor, introduced the Vanilla Beans to Cortez, the Spanish explorer, who ultimately transported the valuable Vanilla Beans to Spain and subsequently to all of Europe in the early 1500’s. For many years, Vanilla was only enjoyed by the very rich and considered a luxury. It was consumed with cocoa as a delicacy in a special beverage. In 1602, Hugh Morgan, a chemist for Queen Elizabeth I, discovered that Vanilla could be used as a unique, stand alone flavoring.
Today, Vanilla Beans are grown in four different regions of the world: Madagascar, Indonesia, Mexico and Tahiti. Vanilla Beans grown in Madagascar and Indonesia comprise ninety percent of overall worldwide production of the beans. Madagascar, which is off the coast of Africa, is the largest producer of Vanilla Beans. These beans are known as Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans because they are grown on the Bourbon Islands of Madgascar, Comoro, Seychelle and Reunion. Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans are considered to be the best available with a sweet, rich and creamy flavor. The second largest producer of Vanilla Beans is Indonesia. Today Mexico, where Vanilla Beans were first harvested, grows only a small amount of worldwide Vanilla Beans. Finally, Tahiti is the last producer of Vanilla Beans.
Different opinions exist concerning whether the length of the Vanilla Bean determines its quality. However, there is universal consensus that the plumper and moister bean is better than a dry, straw-like one. It is best to store your Vanilla Beans in a cool, dry place in an airtight container. Do not refrigerate your Vanilla Beans because this may cause them to become hard and form crystals or develop mold. When you are ready to use the bean it helps to pound it down before you split it open to extract all the little black seeds. Enjoy!