Vanilla comes from the pod of a tropical climbing orchid native to Mexico, and to this day some of the best vanilla beans in the world are produced in Papantla, Mexico.
We visited our vanilla supplier in Papantla, in April 2017 to see how vanilla production had changed since we were last there over 20 years ago.
After flying from Mexico City to Poza Rica, we travelled by road to Gutiérrez Zamora near Papantla. The next day we drove through dense tropical jungle to reach one of the Gaya vanilla plantations:
When you look at a humble vanilla bean, it’s worth thinking about the amount of work that goes into producing this universally adored spice.
To begin with, even in its native Mexico, vanilla doesn’t have a natural pollinator as the tiny native Melipona bee is almost extinct. Therefore, every vanilla flower has to be hand pollinated by moving a small membrane and touching the stigma and stamen together to fertilize the flower.
David, Gaya’s chief pollinator explains:
Then David showed us the actual process:
After pollination, the vanilla beans form on the vine, as green tasteless pods.
Over 20 years ago, we saw vanilla vines clinging to trees in the forest. Now, with more controlled cultivation, many vanilla plants are grown and trellised in shadehouses to achieve the optimum growing conditions.
Once the pods fully form, they are harvested and sweated in wooden boxes. This process activates naturally-produced enzymes which ultimately turn the pods black and create the flavour of vanilla. While it’s common for many producers to plunge the green pods into hot water to activate the enzyme, at Gaya, they sweat the pods in wooden boxes placed in a low temperature kiln.
The Gaya vanilla business is managed by 5th generation Norma Gaya, who explains what makes the curing of their vanilla so special:
After sweating in the wood boxes, the vanilla pods are placed out in the sunshine on mats, where they absorb the heat of the sun, and the enzyme action continues to produce vanillin.
At night, the vanilla beans are stacked on racks where they will continue to sweat during the tropical evening. The next day, they are put out in the sun again, and put to bed that night. This process goes on for between 12 to 28 days depending on the size, thickness and moisture content of the pods.
Herbie’s Spices Gourmet Grade Vanilla Beans are graded according to flavour quality rather than size, and are moist, succulent, aromatic and full-flavoured. We currently source these from Mexico.
Add a whole vanilla bean to fruit during stewing, or slit the bean open and scrape out the millions of sticky seeds within to blend through ice-cream, unflavoured yoghurt or rich, thick cream.
Vanilla extract is made by steeping chopped, cured vanilla beans in alcohol and then distilling off much of the spirit. Use Herbie’s Spices Natural Vanilla Extract instead of artificial vanilla essence for a rounder, more full-bodied taste.
For more information about vanilla, and herbs and spices in general, look for The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill. Published by Robert Rose Inc. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.