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Dried and cured vanilla beans

The aromatic and simple vanilla is actually quite an exotic flavour. It comes with its own history, and is perhaps one of the best discoveries. Vanilla is grown from a unique species of orchid that is native to South America. It was used by the Mayans and Aztecs in a drink that they mixed with cacao, the precursor to chocolate. It arrived in Europe after South America was conquered.

Vanilla did not attract much patronage immediately. It began rather humbly. Queen Elizabeth I was the first person to taste vanilla flavouring and took to its mild but pleasant taste. Prior to this, it was not well received. Since it is pollinated only by the native Melipona bee, Europeans were unable to study it and grow it themselves.

Vanilla beans hanging off a vine at a plantation in Idukki, Kerala Image source: wikimedia commons

One day, a young slave boy Edmond Albius developed what is now practiced as hand pollination. A stick is used to pry the male and female parts of the flower apart, and with a gentle flick of the thumb, it is pollinated. The bulb swells up immediately if the fertilisation is successful. If the process involves any extra force, the entire effort is in vain. The vanilla flowers remain open only for a day, and fall to the ground if not pollinated.

When the Europeans discovered this, vanilla was grown widely. Once the long vanilla bean grows to the required length, it is dried and fermented. This is when the vanilla aroma begins to develop. Vanilla became a much-loved flavour in European food, and today is the most used ingredient in baking.

Vanilla beans being cured and dried Image source: wikimedia commons

Since the production of vanilla is expensive and so laborious, scientists have discovered an alternative. They make a synthetic compound that has the same chain structure as vanilla, called vanillin, which can be created from petrochemicals, lignin, eugenol, and even the anal secretions of beavers. This synthetic vanillin smells and tastes the same as real vanilla and is much cheaper.

Despite protests from activists, vanillin is widely used in the food industry to ease consumer demands. The real vanilla bean takes an entire year to grow and ferment enough to be used as flavouring, and at that rate, it is impossible to meet the global demand.

Keywords: Vannila, Vannilin, Synthetic flavouring, Europe, South America



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