Vanilla has an illustrious history throughout the tropical regions of the world and can be traced back to its origins in Central America. Upon a recent trip to Veracruz, Mexico, I discovered that the Totonac Indians, whose ancestors have been credited by some for having learned to cure and use vanilla, are continuing to harvest both wild and cultivated vanillas in that region. While some of the curing and growing techniques have changed a little, this cultivation has been continuous through the centuries, providing vanilla flavor for chocolate, pastries, beverages, and sauces.
Vanilla comes to us from several varieties of orchid...vanilla planifolia and vanilla tahitensis being the most common for culinary use. In the last century, Madagascar has been the chief producer, often providing some 70% of the world crop. Vanilla planifolia is also being commercially grown in the Comoros and Reunion Islands, Uganda, Indonesia, Tonga, India, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, and Veracruz, Mexico. Vanilla tahitensis, whose origins remain a debate, but may have evolved from the vanilla 'pampona' variety of Central America, is grown in Tahiti and more recently in Papua New Guinea.
Methods of pollinating, cultivating, and curing differ slightly in different places though the basic treatment is similar. When Europeans first took vanilla cuttings and began to cultivate them in other tropical climates, they initially got no fruit. It was discovered that a small bee, the melipona, was responsible for most of the pollinating of the vanilla orchids in Central America, and that these orchids would need to be hand pollinated in order to produce results. Today, vanilla everywhere goes through the work-intensive process of hand pollination, once the flowers have appeared. From this moment, it can take up to eight months to produce a mature long green vanilla bean ready for curing. The beans, once picked, are then exposed to a heat source to stop the growth (enzymatic) process. This can be done by boiling, steam, or oven heating. In Indonesia, the custom had been to initially dry the beans over a fire source. This left the beans with an inappropriate smokey flavor that most of us do not value. They have finally begun to change this method. Once the enzymatic process has been stopped, the daily sun curing begins. The beans are laid out in the hot midday sun for a few hours, then brought in and covered and allowed to sweat overnight, then placed in the sun again the following day. This may go on from one to five months, depending on the decision of the curing facility. The end result is either the large oily beans that I favor, or a drier version that goes to the manufacturing and extract market.
While in Veracruz on a recent trip, I found the vanilla vines growing up the sides of a tree called "Pichoco". This tree resembles our mimosa and allows the right amount of light to filter through its leaves to produce beautiful, large, and strong vanilla. In Madagascar the "Filao" tree is often used for this purpose. More recently farmers in Veracruz are using orange trees as "host" platforms, and if this proves successful over time, this region will likely produce greater quantities. At Bacstrom, we are constantly seeking the top end beans from each harvest: large oily beans, high in the flavor and fragrance components that our clients favor.