The unseasonably rainy days have given me time to complete some research on vanilla that I started some time ago. I explored vanilla and its many uses as well as some authenticity issues. I have provided some links for those who are interested in learning more. I’m sure you’ll agree, it is a very “delicate” subject.

The vanilla orchids do grow in the higher elevations in the Jaltemba Bay area. For those who are adventurous, an orchid hunt may be just the thing for you.

Vanilla is much more than flavouring for baked goods. Its magical qualities are used, for example, in aromatherapy to calm the mind and body. It has become the world’s favourite flavour and fragrance. Vanilla is the most expensive spice, after saffron, because growing the vanilla seed pods is labour-intensive. Given its market price, vanilla is a rare commodity, and its depth of flavor ranks right up there with the finest of wines. Vanilla orchids, the only orchid plant that produces an edible fruit, are grown in México, Madagascar, Tahiti, Indonesia, India, Uganda, and Papua New Guinea. They are hand pollinated, hand harvested and hand cured by farmers in a process that takes anywhere from 13 to 14 weeks. No wonder vanilla is so expensive!

Bea Rauch Vanilla 3
Vanilla bean photo credit: / Vanilla orchid flower photo credit (top photo):

The main species harvested is Vanilla planifolia. Vanilla, a native of México, originated with the Totonaco Indians in the Veracruz area. This rainforest orchid, whose fruit, the vanilla bean (pod) can be pollinated naturally by the bees of the Melipona genus (abeja de monte or mountain bees) found only in México. So the bee provided México with a 300-year-long monopoly on vanilla production until artificial pollination began to be used. Today, even in México, hand pollination is used.

Using a bevelled sliver of bamboo, an agricultural worker lifts the membrane separating the anther and the stigma, and then, using the thumb, transfers the pollen from the anther to the stigma. This flower, self-pollinated, will then produce a fruit. The vanilla flower lasts about a day, sometimes less. So growers inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a labour-intensive process.

Some vanilla extract produced in México is no bargain. If the price is too good to be true, you likely don’t have the pure vanilla. Some so-called “vanilla” is not made from the vanilla bean but from beans of the tonka tree. Tonka bean extract contains coumarin. Eating foods made with this vanilla may be risky for people taking blood-thinning drugs, and can also be toxic to the liver. These products are usually labelled “Extracto de Vainilla.” A good rule of thumb is to look for “vanilla bean” as the first in the list of ingredients on the label. Tonka Bean is most widely used in perfumery.

Imitation vanilla extract is made from a compound called “vanillin,” which can be derived from wood, and is often a byproduct of the paper making industry. Although this product has a very similar aroma and flavor to real vanilla, some say that it has a slightly bitter aftertaste. Stay away from anything with vanillin in the ingredient list – it’s a chemical made in the lab and totally synthetic.

Bea Rauch Vanilla 1
Here is a photo of my “Vanilla stash” I take home for souvenir gifts.

The “Orlando” brand of vanilla, which is produced in the Veracruz area, is among the highest-quality blends of vanilla and has been my choice for quite a few years. It is made from organically-grown, Méxican vanilla beans and is free of additives and synthetic chemicals. Orlando vanilla is the purest form of vanilla extract, and contains only vanilla bean extractives and a small amount of water and alcohol. Orlando follows the U.S. FDA standard without using sugar or glycerine. Natural sugar cane alcohol is used in the extraction process, and the most modern water filtration system is employed. Orlando vanilla is “handcrafted” the old fashioned way in small, five gallon batches.

So, did you really get a bargain? Is it real or synthetic? If you paid less than $200 pesos for that 1,000 ml bottle of vanilla, “surprise” but you might have bought a “knock-off.. If you want to take home a real Mexican souvenir, visit Hala’s Hamaca Maya in La Peñita as she carries the Orlando brand in both dark and clear varieties. The clear vanilla is especially good for flavouring meringues, whipping cream and smoothies. I also found Orlando vanilla, both brown and clear, in Rincón de Guayabitos at Artesanias y Joyeria Tinos, on the opposite side of Avenida del Sol Neuevo from Alejandro’s bright pink building.

Tightly-sealed at room temperature, vanilla will last indefinitely.

by Bea Rauch

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