Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)

Vanilla is a tropical vine, which can reach a length of over 30 m. It has thick, fleshy stems and greenish flowers that open early in the morning and are pollinated by bees. The flowers have only a slight scent, with no element of the vanilla flavour or aroma. Once pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into fruits called ‘pods’ similar to long, thin runner beans over a period of four weeks. The pods contain thousands of tiny black seeds. The cured fruits (‘pods’) of the vanilla vine are the source of one of the world’s most popular flavourings and are a valuable commodity.The earliest documented use of vanilla refers to its use in a drink made from cocoa beans by the Aztecs. Vanilla was subsequently introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century and to Madagascar by the French in the 19th century. Today, most of the world’s vanilla is produced in Madagascar, Réunion and the Comoro Islands, as well as in Indonesia and Mexico. The tiny seeds, whole fruit, powder or fruit extract of vanilla are used as flavouring agents in food, particularly in confectionery and sweet foods, sometimes to reduce the amount of sugar necessary to sweeten food. While in most cases, the extract is used, in others, powders, essences and salt are used. All these forms of the spice are commercially produced. Most vanilla recipes include ice creams, puddings and baked foods such as pastries, frosting, cakes, cookies and muffins. Sometimes, this flavoring agent is also used to complement chocolate, cocoa, coffee and caramel. It is also among the most important ingredients in perfumery. Vanilla is used medicinally as an aphrodisiac, as a stimulant, and to relieve fevers and gastric complaints, although there is no scientific evidence for its effectiveness in these cases. However, research has shown that vanillin, the main flavour molecule in vanilla, does have antimicrobial and antioxidant activities. The mature, unripe fruits have no flavour when they are harvested. The aroma and flavour of vanilla are released when the fruit is dried and cured by steaming and fermentation. The finest quality vanilla pods turn dark brown and accumulate a frosting of glucose and vanillin on the surface during fermentation.