Natural vanilla: what is it and where does its flavor come from? Plus three recipes to try

07/07/2021

Known throughout the world and valued by the best tasters, vanilla is originally related to the Totonaca culture, from the region of Papantla, Veracruz. It is said that the perfumed fruit, called "tlilxóchitl" in Nahuatl, was one of the tributes demanded by the Aztecs from conquered peoples in the eastern territories. Later, with the arrival of the Europeans, vanilla began a long pilgrimage: the pods went to Spain where they were used in the preparation of perfumes, and also to flavor chocolate as the Mexican Indians did; and the plant went to England, around 1800, to continue later to the French botanical gardens.

The migration did not stop, the vanilla continued its journey from the islands of the Indian Ocean, until it arrived - in the middle of the 19th century - to the largest of all, Madagascar. The current Malagasy Republic became, much later, the world's largest producer of the famous bean.

The most cultivated species is Vanilla planifolia, native to Mexico and northern Central America. This orchid is grown in our country, mainly in the humid and warm climate of northern Veracruz (Papantla, Gutiérrez Zamora, Tecolutla, Martínez de la Torre, etc.), which produces almost 95% of all Mexican vanilla. Other producing states are Oaxaca and Puebla, with few cultivated hectares, although there is an interesting development plan in Oaxaca, in Usila.

In Mexican cultivation, different "tutors", or living trees, have been used, where the orchid climbs and settles. The tutors have traditionally been small trees such as the cocuite, the pichoco, and the chaca; and now also the orange tree, which according to the experience of some farmers in the municipality of Martínez de la Torre is magnificent support.

The cultivation of vanilla requires real attention, "the vanilla is jealous" -the farmers usually say- "the continuous passing of people can damage it", "it is necessary to take care of the diseases, to gather organic matter at the foot of the plant so that its roots find good food, to be attentive to pollinate it when the flower opens...". Because in this crop, hand pollination is necessary if the fruits are to be guaranteed.

Around March or April the plant flowers. The flowers grow in clusters, known as pots, and each plant produces 10 to 15 pots. The pots have an average of 10 to 20 flowers, of which one or two open each morning, to die in the afternoon; the next day more open. Five or six flowers must be pollinated from each pot to guarantee only three or four fruits, and thus take care not to exhaust the plant's energy, which could weaken it and make it very sensitive to disease.

According to a presidential decree, November 15 is the date on which the cutting of the pod is permitted. This measure is intended to protect growers from the theft of the fruit, but it does not mean that this is the optimal date. Some processors claim that if the pods were left in the orchid - at least 15 days longer - their active ingredient, vanillin, and the other components that influence the flavor of the fruit, would increase considerably, resulting in better quality pods in the fermentation and drying process that constitutes the process of processing. Other vanilla enthusiasts say that the appropriate date for cutting should be defined every year.

The market for natural vanilla is varied: bakeries, soft drink factories, ice cream industries, home consumption, beverage and liquor manufacturing, etc. In Mexico, one of the largest buyers of vanilla beans is the Coca-Cola company. A curious fact is that Coca-Cola -which buys the fruit processed in Papantla- directly processes the black pods to make the extract used in its concentrates. Other companies that buy processed pods, although on a much smaller scale, such as H. Konhstamm of Mexico, occasionally produce natural vanilla extract for sale.

After the arrival of the Europeans, vanilla began a long pilgrimage to Spain, to England, and later to the French botanical gardens.

In Mexico, the production and consumption of natural extract are very low. The price of the pod cannot compete with that of other artificial flavorings that use synthetic vanillin in their formula, with a taste and smell similar to vanilla, but extracted through certain chemical processes from eugenol (a component of clove essence), or from the coniferin present in some conifers, or from other products.

Nevertheless, the taste and smell of natural vanilla continue to be superior and unique, which is why it still maintains a very specific market. Such is the case of certain exquisite pastry shops that refuse to use the synthetic product, and even claim to have difficulties in finding an appropriate extract of the pod prepared in Mexico. Some of these professional confectioners prefer to buy the processed pod directly, and due to the high cost of the pod, they have begun to associate themselves with the crop. On the other hand, the large cookie, bread, cake, and ice cream industries do use synthetic vanillin. And that is really the vanilla flavor that reaches all of Mexico, that of synthetic vanillin, which, by the way, is not produced in the country.

Vanilla obtained through the application of biotechnology principles is an issue that is making all vanilla bean producers nervous. It involves the cultivation of vanilla cells in a special solution, rich in nutrients, which would give rise to a cell mass with the flavor of vanilla. In such a case, vanillin, together with the other components that give vanilla its uniqueness, could be obtained in the laboratory, without the arduous work involved in the whole process of cultivating and processing the valuable fruit. It seems that research in this direction is continuing, but there is still no news that its results can really replace the natural pod.

In the international market, the demand for natural vanilla comes mainly from France and its famous confectionery, Germany, Canada, Japan, and others, although the largest importer is the United States, which consumes more than half of the world's production, to be used, according to some authors, in the ice cream industry. The tendency of certain countries to return to natural products is an important factor for the cultivation of the fragrant pod.

Vanilla from Papantla won international awards for its quality during the last century.

When reviewing the literature on the main vanilla producers, the information on Mexico is often no more than a historical brushstroke. Paradoxically, the large productions of "tlilxóchitl" are not located in any territory close to where the plant originates, but in the islands of the Indian Ocean: Madagascar, Reunion, Comoros, and also in Indonesia. Lately, new producers such as Uganda, Tahiti, and Samoa have entered the market with prices so low that they are alarming, and apparently causing the traditional exporters to change their strategies.

This crop undoubtedly had better times in Mexico. It is said that the first Mexican exports of vanilla were made by a Frenchman at the beginning of the 18th century. By the end of the nineteenth century, the techniques of processing, through drying in ovens and in the sun, fermentation and sweating of the pods had been so perfected that it is said that the products from Papantla, presented at the renowned Paris exhibition of 1889, won a gold medal.

At that time Mexico was facing competition from the Indian Islands, although it continued to maintain an important economic income from the export of the pod through the port of Veracruz. Back in the forties of this century, vanilla sales abroad increased considerably, until they reached respectable values, especially if one takes into account that vanilla is not a crop of great magnitude.

The few hundred tons produced at that time were a good figure, which contrasts with that of the sixties and seventies, when export levels were negligible, almost nil. In the eighties, world market prices favored vanilla again, and the crop began to recover. Current Mexican production is of the order of thirty tons, while vanilla consumption in the world is about 2,000 tons per year, although some sources indicate that there are more than 2,500 tons of unsatisfied demand.

The international market hardly takes into account the Mexican production, due to its small size and fluctuations. If it increases and stabilizes, it would surely have a fixed market. Some beneficiaries of Gutiérrez Zamora say that there have been important requests from countries such as Japan, Holland, etc., which could not be covered.

Therefore, it is worth reflecting: which agricultural product had a price of more than 15 new pesos per kilogram in November 1994, and which product, after being processed, can cost up to 85 dollars per kilogram, as is the case of organic vanilla? At present, the average national yield is low, around 200 to 250 kilograms of green pods per hectare, but if adequate production plans were implemented, profits could be considerable.

Traditional vanilla processing and packaging techniques have been passed down from one generation to the next.

Besides the economic aspect, other advantages should be taken into account. In the Mexican form of cultivation, vanilla is associated with living trees, vegetation that contributes its own organic matter to the soil and prevents erosion, as well as recharging the aquifers. The vanilla groves, forests of trees clothed with the fragrant orchid, are also a refuge for fauna - birds, reptiles, insects - as well as for other wild plants.

It would be very useful to carry out studies and permanent controls of the pests and diseases that attack the vanilla trees, and to try to find more biological solutions than the enormous quantities of insecticides and pesticides that spread on the crops. Interesting news is that there is already an ejido, lo. de Mayo, in Papantla, Veracruz, on its way to receiving international accreditation as an organic vanilla producer, a task that requires a lot of effort. However, the difference in the price of organic vanilla compared to non-organic vanilla is a good incentive for this community, which also speaks of the benefits of this type of production for the environment.

Mexico still possesses the best treasure of vanilla: its genetic base. Mexican vanilla plantations could be considered extensive mother orchards, if compared to plantations in large producing countries, where diversity is generally composed of only a few clones. However, it would be extremely important to promote the creation of true mother orchards within the country, to guarantee the survival and propagation of the best individuals. It is also necessary to create well-maintained germplasm banks to guarantee the conservation of the genetic diversity of the genus.

The wild species of Mexican vanilla have not yet been sufficiently studied to know their potential. The genetic information necessary to contribute to crop improvement, increase productivity and increase resistance to diseases may be found in these forests. V. planifolia, and the other Mexican vanillas are awaiting new actions.

What are the nutrients and benefits of vanilla?

Vanilla is native to Mexico and has been cultivated since pre-Hispanic times in the Totonaca region of northern Veracruz and Puebla. Up to 169 aromatic compounds have been detected in the natural vanilla extract, which is why its artisanal production is of high value.

Each 100 grams (g) of vanilla provides 51.40 Kcal, 12.7 g of carbohydrates, 28.50 g of fiber and 0.1 g of protein. It is a source of vitamins B2 and B3, calcium, potassium, sodium, zinc and magnesium. Since pre-Hispanic times, vanilla was also used as a medicine, since it stimulates the central nervous system, relaxes muscles, relieves stress, improves mood and helps reduce inflammation and pain.

How is vanilla recommended to be consumed?

Due to its great flavoring power, vanilla is one of the most demanded products in the food and beverage industry. However, we recommend consuming it in a natural way by adding its extract in smoothies, refreshing drinks, ice creams, shaved ice, desserts, and bread that do not require high amounts of sugar. Natural vanilla extract is enough to flavor what we eat or drink, and it helps us to appreciate its original flavors.

Vanilla vinaigrette for a citrus salad recipe

Ingredients (4 servings):

1 dash of natural vanilla extract.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 small apple

1 teaspoon sesame seeds

3 chopped walnuts

1 cup Italian lettuce

1 grapefruit

1 orange

4 strawberries

2 kiwis

½ cup panela cheese

Preparation:

Remove the seeds from the apple along with the peel. Blend the apple with vanilla extract, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar. Set aside. Disinfect the lettuce, strawberries, and kiwi. Cut the lettuce, strawberries, and kiwi into pieces. Peel and remove segments from the grapefruit and orange. Place the lettuce in the center of the plate or bowl, add the vinaigrette, and toss. Garnish with the remaining ingredients.

Vanilla iced tea recipe

Ingredients (8 servings or glasses):

Lemon tea

2 liters of water

A splash of natural vanilla extract

Mint leaves

1 sliced yellow lemon

Ice

Preparation:

Bring the lemon tea to a boil. Let the tea cool completely. Add the dash of vanilla and mix. Add ice. Add the sliced lemon and mint leaves.

Yogurt smoothie with vanilla, oatmeal, and banana recipe

Ingredients (4 servings):

1½ cup skim milk

1½ cup plain yogurt with no sugar added

½ cup oatmeal

1 piece banana

1 tablespoon natural vanilla extract

1 teaspoon cinnamon powder

Raisins

Preparation:

Blend milk and yogurt in blender until completely integrated. Add vanilla, oatmeal and banana. Blend again. Serve and garnish with cinnamon and raisins.

By Emma Romeu, Sources: Elpoderdelconsumidor.orgCONABIO, the first issue of its bi-monthly bulletin Biodiversitas.