I love vanilla.
A scoop of vanilla ice cream, especially vanilla bean ice cream. Vanilla sauce, warm or cold, on fresh berries or poached winter fruits. Vanilla’s elevation of cherry pie, rice pudding, sugar cookies. Vanilla bean yogurt. Vanilla panna cotta. Vanilla milk shakes, even better with a glug of Scotch.
And isn’t it cool that the vanilla comes from an orchid, Vanilla planifolia? That out of the tens of thousands of orchids Vanilla planifolia is the only flower that produces an edible seed? That Mexico, where it was domesticated, is the only place in the world where wild vanilla still grows? Unique!
Uniquely expensive, too. Have you noticed?
In Vancouver at a food warehouse known for its good prices, a 4oz bottle of pure vanilla extract from Mexico sells for $36.99. Two leathery, dark-brown vanilla beans from Madagascar are $9.99—a bargain compared with $11-16 for higher-quality ones from Mexico at Granville Island. So when we planned to go to Mexico, buying vanilla beans was a must.
Vanilla, difficult to grow commercially and tedious to process, is the world’s second-most expensive spice, after saffron. The price of vanilla beans swings, depending on the weather and the harvest. In 2020, a kilo of vanilla beans fetched 17,000 Mexican pesos, or 1,270 “northern pesos” as we sometimes call our Canadian dollar.
It’s always been expensive. In the late nineteenth century two weeks before harvest, to discourage thieves, growers in Madagascar chiselled tiny tattoos into their vanilla beans! An early example of branding.
In Papantla, “the vanilla capital” of Mexico once dubbed “the city that perfumes the world,” stealing vanilla pods results in a laughable fine of only 20 pesos ($1.50). Growers, sleeping at their plots, machetes on hand, have been killed defending their plants. Farmers now hire armed guards. And sometimes sell their product to opportunistic coyotes who buy the pods before they ripen at less than half the value. Loss of tropical forests and cheap synthetically made imitation vanilla also threaten Mexico’s vanilla industry.
While not the epicentre of Vanilla planifolia in Mexico, Oaxaca is one of the three states producing it. I hoped to find a market selling vanilla beans, fresh and aromatic, exuding that floral scent that’s such a part of vanilla’s seductive taste.
First of all, 95% of Mexico’s vanilla is exported. Madagascar produces vanilla beans more economically (one-third of Mexico’s cost, in part because Madagascar producers receive only eight percent of the price) and claims 56% of the world market (worth US$1.2 billion), followed by Indonesia and China. Mexico is the fourth-largest producer and boasts a fair-trade certification and a Denominación de Origen similar to France’s geographic indications for wine, cheese and butter. “What nobody has taken away yet is the denomination of origin—Papantla vanilla, the best quality in the world,” says Ramírez, president of the growers’ association.
We got lucky finding Papantla vanilla.
Oaxaca has three major markets downtown, any one of them a possibility for vanilla beans. Where to start?
Walking through the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, famous for “El Pasillo de las Carnes Asadas” (grilled-meats aisle, also nicknamed Hell Alley because of its thick, dark smoke), I had an idea. Why not ask one of the tour group leaders?
“Sorry, no English,” said the first man I approached who was waving a tour flag.
Then a guy in his group piped up, translated my request to the tour leader, and gave us the directions. “He says if anyone has them it’s a woman vendor at Mercado Benito Juárez across the street, on the east side, not far from the exit.”
“Listo!” In a few minutes we found the vendor. Her pods of fresh vanilla beans were large, plump and fragrant. And only 50 pesos each, about C$3.50.
I gave Lynn three of my these beautiful coffee-coloured vanilla beans, made a crème caramel with one-and-a-half beans, and put the rest in a plastic bag in our pantry. And went back to learning more about vanilla.
Getting from flower to an edible product is an arduous sometimes three-year process. Vanilla flowers only last for about a day, so plantations must be constantly inspected for open flowers, the beginning of an extremely labour-intensive business. For each large bunch of flowers, workers pollinate no more than three or four as the fewer seedpods that form, the higher their quality. This delicate operation happens early in the morning from the end of March to the beginning of May.
Like a baby, a vanilla pod takes nine months to grow, and since each pod ripens on its own inexact time, harvesting is a daily chore. The pods are collected, sealed in bags and left in the sun for five hours a day for fifteen days. This is a sensitive process. Too long in the sun and they dry out. Not long enough and they don’t reach a high enough temperature and rot will set in. Curing takes another two months.
A month had gone by when our luck with vanilla beans changed.
Reaching into the pantry for a bottle of vanilla extract, I accidentally noticed my vanilla beans were covered with a fuzzy cappuccino-coloured mold!
Vanilla beans should stored in a plastic or glass container in a dry place. What I didn’t know is that you should open up the jar or tube or bag every few weeks to let the pods air, which I had not done.
I removed the vanilla beans from the plastic bag, wiped off the mold with a paper towel and stuck them in a glass jar.
A few weeks later, mold, again. Uggh!
Someone suggested you throw out moldy beans. Ha! I doubt a Mexican mama would do that. Nor would this half-Scottish mom.
I wondered if my moldy vanilla was going to have to be relegated to its initial use in Mexico, a fragrance mixed with oil to scent women’s hair, before they realized how delicious it made their xocolatl, a mixture of cocoa beans, chili and corn.
Researching further, I read moldy vanilla beans were safe to use if you wiped off the mold with paper towelling soaked in high-proof alcohol. Out came the gin bottle. Did the Totanac people experience moldy beans?
The Totanac believed orchid flowers sprang from the blood of Princess Tzacopontziz, who was sacrificed by her father and the temple priests for falling in love with a commoner. The Totanac used the synecdoche of Vanilla planifolia for the female sex, as did the Spanish, who called it vainilla, (“little pod”), a diminutive of vaina (“sheath”), from the Latin vagina.
In Europe, Mexican vanilla was only used for flavouring chocolate until 1602 when the elixir rose to stardom thanks to Queen Elizabeth I’s pastry chef who thought she might like the flavour. He, Hugh Morgan, could be my hero.
The orchid plants that Hernán Cortés introduced to Europe in the 1520s didn’t produce vanilla pods. No one knew how to pollinate orchid blooms until Edmond Albius, a twelve-year-old slave in Madagascar, figured out a simple method in 1841 that’s still used today.
Still, less than one percent of the globally produced vanillin is derived from vanilla pods; the rest is synthetically made from clove oil, courmarin and other ingredients. The recent identification of VpVAN, a flavour compound present in wood that makes up 2.5 percent of true vanilla’s flavour, has resulted in a new opportunity for the biotechnology-based production of natural vanillin. Add 160 other compounds and you’re halfway to the 250-500 volatile compounds found in pure vanilla.
Back to my vanilla pods—two in the glass jar were moldy!
To protect my crop, I thank Ligaya Misha, author of “Flowers for Dinner,” for providing a recipe for preserving vanilla beans—in mezcal—which we have plenty of from Oaxaca. And I’ve started to use up my crop, first by making this Mexican-derived dessert: Vanilla Pot de Crème with Dulce de Leche, Marcona Almonds and a Layer of Chocolate.
Vanilla Pot de Crème with Dulce de Leche, Marcona Almonds and a Layer of Chocolate
- 1 can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 1 1/2 whole vanilla beans
- 4 extra-large egg yolks
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 1/4 ounces dark chocolate
- 1/3 cup Marcona almonds, coarsely chopped
- 1 tsp grapeseed oil
- Place the can of condensed milk in a medium saucepan, cover with water by 2 inches or more, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for 4 hours, adding boiling water as needed. Let the can cool to room temperature before opening it to what is now butterscotch-coloured dulce de leche.
- Combine the milk and 2/3 cup of the cream in a medium pot. Split the vanilla beans in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and pulp with a paring knife, and add the seeds and pod pieces to the milk/cream mixture. Bring to a boil over high heat. Turn off the heat, cover, and let infuse for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 325° F.
- Beat the egg yolks and sugar at high speed for 3 minutes or until the mixture is pale yellow and ribbons as it falls from the beaters. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the warm cream/milk/vanilla mixture to temper the eggs. Strain the mixture and let it sit for 20 minutes. Skim off the foam.
- Spoon the dulce de leche evenly into four ramekins. Pour the cream mixture on top and place the ramekins in a small roasting pan. Pour hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins, cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes. Cool and refrigerate for at least four hours.
- Melt the chocolate and grapeseed oil. Spoon 1 tablespoon of the chocolate mixture onto each pot de crème, and immediately tip the ramekins to swirl the chocolate around on top. Refrigerate until ready to serve, but better yet, to make the chocolate easier to cut through, do this step just before serving.
- Whip the remaining 1/3 cup of cream to soft peaks, and spoon a dollop onto each pot de crème. Sprinkle the Marcona almonds on top. Suzanne says to "Serve on pretty napkins set on dessert plates," a good idea to pretty up this dessert, even if you have glass ramekins.
P.S. In the Smithsonian Magazine while searching for a photo of a climbing vanilla orchid I read that in an undisturbed 3,600-year-old Canaanite tomb in Israel, researchers recovered three small jugs that contain two of the main chemicals in vanilla. Vanilla has antimicrobial properties so it may have been used to preserve the bodies before burial or deposited in the burial as a perfume offering for the dead. Researchers suggest the vanillin probably came from orchids native to Southeast Asia or East Africa, arriving to the Middle East through Bronze Age trade routes.
Goin, Suzanne. The a.o.c. cookbook. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Every one of Suzanne’s recipes that I’ve ever tried rates at least a 9/10—her Vanilla Pot de Crème is no exception.
Hannickel, Erica. Orchid Muse. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2022. A delightful book, also with a chapter on Frida Kahlo’s orchids.
Lidz, Frank. “The Delicious, Ancient History of Chocolate and Vanilla.” Smithsonian Magazine. July 2019.
Misha, Ligaya. “Flowers for Dinner.” The New York Times. Sept 8, 2021.