Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Foodie Freak: Vanilla, the x-rated information

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Today we will be discussing vanilla and I will be giving you the exotic information that you don’t get on the “vanilla” daytime food shows.


Send the kids away; some of this information is for adults only. This will be an easy thing for me to write, because the one thing I have a lot of in my head is X-rated information. (I can only feel sorry for my wife who is going to be deleting paragraph after paragraph, isn’t she?)


Start the background music now … Bow-chika-Wha-WOW!


Vanilla is native to Central America and Mexico and was first cultivated by the Totonac people, but when the Aztecs conquered them in 1427 it became their mandatory tribute to the Aztec’s monarch Itzcoatl. Eventually many cultures in ancient Mesoamerican began to grow it. The Aztecs named the vine “tlilxochitl” meaning “Black Flower” after the blackened bean.


The mythology of vanilla from the Totonac people says that the goddess Princess Xanat ran away with her mortal lover, so her father – in an effort to stop the dude on deity action – sent priests after them to capture them.


When caught the pair was beheaded, and anywhere their blood hit the ground a vanilla vine grew. Princess Xanat considered it her way of blessing humans and a way to stay near them. Even in its origins, the myths surrounding vanilla are tied up in forbidden love.


The vanilla bean is the fruit of a particular species of orchid, which gives us another shocking bit of information in our study. The root word for orchid is the Greek “orchis,” meaning testicles. This comes from the fact that an orchid’s roots form a pair of tubers that look like testicles.


Of the 20,000 varieties of orchid, 60 produce a vanilla bean-like fruit, but only the three subspecies of vanilla orchid produces something actually valuable.


Hernan Cortes brought back the vanilla vine to the Old World but to their dismay Europeans never reaped any vanilla beans from the plants. They failed to understand that in its native habitat the orchid was pollinated specifically by the Melipone bee which is only found in Mexico.


Some believe that bats, birds, honeybees and hummingbirds also pollinate the vanilla blossom, but the actual amount they do is negligible. To complicate the process even more, the vanilla flower is only open for a few hours of one day, and if it isn’t pollinated the flower withers and dies.


In 1836 the Belgian botanist and horticulturist Charles Francois Antoine Morren was drinking coffee in the town of Papantla, the northernmost city in Veracruz, Mexico (and today the region’s biggest producer of vanilla), when he noticed the small black Melipone bees entering the vanilla flower near his table. Within a few days he noticed vanilla beans begin to form.


He then worked to develop a way to hand pollinate vanilla, but it is said that his method was too labor intensive and cost prohibitive.


In 1841 vanilla vines were being grown on the island of Reunion not far from Madagascar, and a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius created a new method of pollinating the flowers using just a small twig or blade of grass and his thumb, making vanilla cultivation far simpler, faster and much more profitable. His method is still the primary method in use today.


While Albius’s contribution to the cultivation of vanilla on the island did get him a shortened prison term at one point in his life, he died in poverty at the age of 51.


The word “vanilla” comes from the Spanish “vainilla,” which is the diminutive form of “vaina” meaning “sheath,” and so vainilla means “little sheath.” The root of vaina comes from the Latin word vagina meaning sheath for a sword.


Oh great, First the term “manhole” is changed to “personhole,” and “actress” seems to have disappeared altogether, but what will “vagina” be changed to be more politically correct? I’ll let you folks work that one out.


There are some stories that claim that vanilla was so named because of they felt the orchid flower looked similar to a vagina, but that seems to be more reverse comparison more than truth.


Vanilla is grown in tropical climates throughout the world, but there are three main growing regions that produce arguably unique types of vanilla pods.


Madagascar grows the same plant as Mexico and Central America, Vanilla Plantifolia, having been imported in 1840. The beans from this region are called “Bourbon vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the alcohol of the same name.


The island of Reunion was once called “The Isle of Bourbon” when the French House of Bourbon ruled the region, and it was at this time that vanilla started its production on the island. Bourbon Vanilla is widely known for being intensely flavored with thick, oily skin and potent seeds. Madagascar is the world leader in the production of vanilla.


Mexico also grows the varietal Vanilla Plantifolia (once known as Vanilla Fragrans), a large flavorful pod, but the quality varies extremely from orchard to orchard and also from season to season. Prices also vary greatly due to hurricanes and poor standards.


Tahiti grows Vanilla Tahitiesis, a smaller, very fragrant though mildly flavored pod with thinner skin. This type of vanilla is chiefly used in the production of perfumes and is not considered a major competitor with other culinary vanillas.


Uganda has a fledgling vanilla industry that is a priority in the country. It is currently only supplying to industrial consumers. The largest grower in the country claims to be able to produce a more potent vanilla in only four days rather than the standard six months. If true, this could completely change the vanilla industry.


The third vanilla orchid, Vanilla Pompona, is sold to the public mostly as an ornamental vine and produces a very large banana-like bean. Commercially it is used only in non-culinary applications.


Women and children are the main pollinators of vanilla since it is believed their hands can move more swiftly and accurately than men’s. The average vanilla pollinator can pollinate between 1,000 and 2,000 flowers a day. Once the flower is pollinated the bean will grow to its full size in about six weeks, but it will still need to stay on the vine another nine months before it is mature and ready to be harvested.


Once picked the beans are dipped in boiling water to stop the growing process, then they are rolled up in a tarp before nightfall and stored until morning when they are unrolled to sit in the sun to dry and cure. The bean will change from looking like a long string bean, as it severely darkens and shrivels, and a light crystalline coating will develop. This process will take about 20 days.


After that they are set in trays to ferment for three to six months before the vanilla is ready to be graded and sold. The massive amount of time and labor involved is the reason vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, proceeded only by saffron. Estimates say that 40 percent of the cost of the vanilla bean is due to this hand pollination.


Artificial vanilla was created as a by-product of the paper making process since lignin vanillin, a vanilla-like flavoring is naturally found in wood and other natural products. This lignin vanillin is naturally extracted from the wooden barrels that wine and other alcohols are stored in.


The Tonka bean was once used as a vanilla substitute and used to stretch vanilla extract but since it is full of coumarin, an anticoagulant which is lethal in large doses, the Food and Drug Administration has banned it in the U.S.


The French, who are the world’s second largest consumers of vanilla (America is the largest), still use the Tonka bean. Artificial vanilla can be made from many products, even coal tar being one of them, but now-a-days most are made chemically. Personally, the methods used to make artificial vanilla put me off so much that I gladly pay the extra price to have natural vanilla extract.


In the 17th century an American, Dr. John King, prescribed vanilla extract as an early version of Viagra. There may be more to this than just a quack remedy since recent controlled tests done at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago found that while several odors do in fact increase penile blood flow. On average, lavender and pumpkin pie showed the most increase of 40 percent, however older men showed a considerable response to vanilla.


In 1762 a German physician Bezaar Zimmerman wrote that 342 impotent men were turned into amazing lovers after using a cure of a vanilla-based tincture. Coincidentally perhaps, Thomas Jefferson imported the first vanilla beans to the United States in 1789 after he was the ambassador to France and was introduced to the flavor on the continent. Vanilla rapidly became popular in the United States.


Vanilla has long been purported to be an aphrodisiac which has kept it popular in perfumes and seems to be the chief scent of exotic dancers everywhere. Coca-Cola is the world’s largest buyer of vanilla and caused the Madagascar economy to crash when “New Coke” switched to using artificial vanilla. Madagascar recovered with the demise of New Coke.


Stealing vanilla during times of exceptionally high pricing is a significant problem. Vanilla producers may actually scar vanilla beans while still on the vine, and that scar will remain on the bean permanently giving the grower the ability to identify any stolen beans. This scar is typically a series of pin pricks or a cut with a knife. Think of it as branding cattle.


The best way to get the full experience of vanilla is to use the bean pod. Used in custards and pastries, the pod is split lengthwise and the seeds are scraped out. The seeds and pod are then tossed in a pot of heating milk to flavor the whole dish. The pod is removed after a little while, but the black seeds remain, giving a distinctive look that lets the diner know that real vanilla beans were used.


There are over 250 naturally occurring compounds found in natural vanilla but since 95 percent of vanilla beans imported into the US are used to make extracts, they are a lower grade of vanilla. Most people have never experienced high quality vanilla, and until Lake County gets a dedicated spice merchant the Internet will be the best place to purchase real vanilla for your home.


And yeah, I was right; a lot of this column was deleted for being over the line. You can thank my wife for protecting your psyche.


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community. Follow him on Twitter, http://twitter.com/Foodiefreak .

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