Where to start on this spectacular seed pod borne from a climbing orchidâ€¦ Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia or tahitensis) is one of the worldâ€™s greatest spices, and apparently one of the few indigenous to the New World. A plant native to Mexico, the Spaniards â€œdiscoveredâ€ this in the 1500â€™s, long after the Aztecs figured out that vanilla and chocolate were among the greatest flavor pairings ever created. The Spaniards took the beans back to Europe where they were an instant hit among the fooderati. In the centuries following this â€œdiscovery,â€ attempts were made to cultivate this orchid elsewhere but they mostly failed due to the peculiar manner in which the orchid is pollinated (either by a special bee or by a hummnig bird with a wicked long beak). It doesnâ€™t help that the orchidâ€™s flower only opens for one day and the window to pollinate lasts for just a few hoursâ€¦ Once botanists figured this orchid out, they have been able to cultivate the prized pods in several tropical climates, with Madagascar, The Seychelles, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Reunion, etc. now being the major source of this spice. Most of the cultivated vanilla now is of the planifolia variety, and it is more commonly referred to as Bourbon Vanilla.
I personally first came across live vanilla orchid vines when we got lost while touring the mountains/volcanoes in Bali, Indonesia. We stopped the car at a vast salak (snakefruit) plantation and as I inspected the salak trees out of curiosity, I noticed many vines trailing up fences of the farm. They had long yellowish pods and before I could confirm it, our brilliant guide saysâ€¦yes, it is fresh vanilla! Wow. Wow. Wow. Whatâ€™s the big deal? If you have only ever used bottled artificial vanilla and never a fresh vanilla pod, you are missing one of lifeâ€™s essential food/spice experiences. The intensity of fragrance and the flavor is something that is hard to describe. And in case you are curious, artificial vanilla is synthesized from pulp waste, coal tar or coumarinâ€¦yecch, is right. (This last factoid according to The New Guide to Spices by Sallie Morris). Artificial vanilla doesnâ€™t even come close to the real thing. The same book states that the word vanilla comes from the Spanish “vainilla” which means “little pod”. Most of the cultivated vanilla now is of the planifolia variety, and it is more commonly referred to as Bourbon Vanilla.
So you can imagine my joy when I spotted fresh vanilla beans for sale in the basement of Rockwell Mall at Cookâ€™s Exchange, each pod nicely packaged and on closer inspection, apparently grown locally. The pods were impressively large and the labeling said they were of the variety â€œVanilla Tahitensisâ€ which comes from Tahiti. These pods, however, were proudly grown locally (where it did not say, but reader Millet says they have some in Davao). YAHOO, is all I can say. I brought the pod home and for two weeks wondered how I would use itâ€¦in a crÃ¨me brulee, to make some vanilla sugar, for a pieâ€¦ aha, for my attempt at the ultimate buko pie! I used half the pod and the flavor was absolutely fantastic. Just slit the pod lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and add the hlaf pod to whatever you arecooking along with the seeds…remember to remove the pod later. I normally bring 2-3 whole beans back from trips abroad and I pay through the nose for them. In addition, I buy real natural vanilla flavoring which is wickedly pricey as well, particularly when compared to the artificial stuffâ€¦ natural vanilla flavoring is made by dripping alcohol on chopped up pieces of vanilla pods. At about PHP160 per pod, it seems expensive but the same thing at Zabars in New York or Au Bon Marche in Paris might cost you 3 times as much! Rush out and buy your vanilla pods now! Encourage the local growers to grow some more! I also saw vanilla pods at the new Spice store at Market!Market! but I’m not sure if they were locally sourced.
P.S. After I posted this and read Joey’s comment, I thought I would add a photo or two… here are two types of vanilla in a bottle. On the left is Vanilla “Flavor” while on the right is Pure Vanilla Extract. The bottle on the right cost 15x more than the one on the left. The bottle on the right lists only water, alcohol (35%) Extractives of vanilla beans as their ingredients. The Vanilla “Flavor” bottle coyly lists only water, alcohol and natural and artificial vanilla flavors. How they make the artificial vanilla flavors is where the chemical voodoo is involved…