Part I Vanilla
The vanilla bean is the seed of the orchid, how elegant and sexy is that? It is used primarily in baking, perfume, and aromatherapy. It has a strong, rich floral aroma that is both sweet and mildly earthy, it is well balanced and mellow: it is not too soft or too strong, it is not cloyingly floral, it is not too heavy or woody. The term French vanilla refers to how the bean is used, rather than a particular species of bean. French vanilla means a strong floral aroma combined with yolks, hence French Vanilla ice cream.
This seed pod is very precious, precarious, and delicate. Outside of its natural habit, the vanilla flower has to be cultivated by hand because only one species of bee pollinates the flower. Additionally, the flowers will only live for one day before they die. Thus, this window for pollination is excruciatingly small, a one shot chance. This means that the vanilla vine has to be monitored daily to detect when there flower develops and is ready for reproduction. The vine does not flower all at once, individual flowers will form at their own speed.
Once the plant has been properly pollinated, it takes 6 months for the vanilla bean to reach maturity, again requiring daily attention as each seed matures at different rate. Once maturity has been reached, the pods must be picked by hand because they are so gentle. This whole process is tender, attentive, and laborious.
This is the first step on the train ride before the seeds are ready for the market. After an extensive 4 step curing and fermentation process that takes about 7 months, the now fragrant vanilla bean is packaged and ready to be graded and priced based on size and moisture. Average bulk price per pound of grade A beans, about 120 beans, is $130. Beans sold to the consumer is about $8 per bean. The only spice more expensive is Saffron.
The four cultivators are Bourbon-Madagascar (representing 75% of the market), Mexican, Tahitian, and West Indian. The picky vanilla plant will only grow between 10 and 20 degrees north and south of the equator.
The arduous bean must be stored in vacuum sealed packaging, or in an air tight glass vital for up to 8 months. After over a year of development, this demanding bean will be optimal for use for just a little over half of that time, given that it is stored properly. If not vacuumed sealed, the bean will last 2 months.
The vanilla bean is quite extraordinary. Once you split open this long, thin, dark brown pod you are bombarded with a zillion almost microscopic seeds. It is seemingly impossible how intricate the inside of this sleek slip is. This audacious bean has penetrated the market so all encompassing because of how amazing and universal the flavor is. The story and development of this bean is truly amazing. I am still trying to figure out how vanilla came to describe something boring and plain, when the flavor is so exquisite and it’s history so exotic.