Scientific name: vanilla planifolia
Vanilla beans are the product of a native Mexican orchid, which was first cultivated by the Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people. The Aztecs used it for flavouring, and for its properties. The Spaniard Hernán Cortés is the one who introduced vanilla to Europe in 1520. The Spanish explorers arrived in the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the early sixteenth century and gave vanilla its current name. The word vanilla was written in English in 1754, when the botanist Philip Miller wrote about the strain on the gardener's dictionary, based on the word vainilla, the diminutive of the word vaina, which originated from the Latin vagina (vagina), to describe the way the pod should be opened for the seeds to be collected.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron, due to the complex and lengthy work needed to grow its pods of seeds. Despite its high cost, vanilla is also valued according to its taste, which the author Frederic Rosengarten described in the Book of Spice as "pure, spicy and delicate”, and is commonly used in commercial and domestic food, as well as in perfumery and aromatherapy.
Vanilla is one of the 22,000 species of orchids that grow in the form of vines, climbing up trees or other supportives and in their wild form grow as high as possible, letting out a small amount of flowers. Therefore, every year during cultivation and growth, farmers keep the upper part tilted downwards so that it remains at an accessible for harvesting height, which increases the flowering of the plant.
During the pollination of flowers distinctly aromatic compounds arise in the fruit. It is a hermaphrodite plant and each flower produces a fruit, and can be naturally pollinated by only one type of bee found in Mexico. The fruit is a capsule of seeds which if left on the plant will mature and open as it dries, and then release the distinctive aroma of vanilla. The fruit contains tiny black seeds. In dishes prepared only with natural vanilla, these seeds are recognizable as black specks.
Vanilla pods grow rapidly on the plant but are not ready for harvest until full maturity, which can take about ten months and as each lobe matures in its own time, a daily harvest is needed. To ensure the best taste of all lobes, each is collected by hand when it begins to split at the end. The seeds are covered by a thick red liquid from which the vanilla extract is sourced and its main components are acetic acid, caproic acid, eugenol, isobutyric acid and vanillin. It is widely used in commercial and home sweet dishes, perfumery, soap making and manufacture of cosmetics.
Usage since antiquity:
In the old literature of medicine, vanilla is described as an aphrodisiac and remedy for fevers.
Nowadays, it is often used in aromatherapy for its antioxidant, soothing and calming properties. Because of its antioxidant properties it is also considered anti-cancerous and antipyretic as the essential oil can effectively reduce the disease by combating infections, thanks to the presence of constituents such as eugenol and vanillin. Being a sedative, it also reduces inflammation due to disease, and therefore acts as an anti-inflammatory agent, which also helps to reduce fever.
Vanilla is used in the preparation of meals, giving a soft brown-yellow colour and strong aromatic flavour.