World's Most Flavorful Orchid
Not only was Vanilla considered a wonderful flavoring for foods and beverages, but from the 16th to 19th centuries it was considered to be an aphrodisiac and to have therapeutic values, from aiding digestion and preventing headaches to counteracting poisons and bites. The Aztecs called these brown beans "tlilxochitl"(tea-so-shill), the Aztec word for "Black Flower", and required the Totonac Indians who produced them to give some of the finest pods to the emperor Montezuma as a tax payment.
In 1518, while the Spanish Conquistador Cortez was seeking the treasures of the New World, he observed the Aztec emperor Montezuma enjoying a royal beverage of Vanilla scented chocolate. He was so impressed by this kingly drink that when he and his men returned to Europe, they took bags of cocoa and Vanilla along with the gold, silver and jewels of Montezuma's fallen empire. Within half a century after Cortez made his discovery, Spanish factories were preparing Vanilla-flavored chocolate. For some time Europeans continued to use Vanilla only in combination with the cocoa bean.
In 1602, however, Vanilla began to be used as a flavoring on its own, the suggestion of Queen Elizabeth's apothecary, Hugh Morgan. Since then Vanilla has soared in popularity, making it more popular than chocolate or any other flavor known before or since. For more than 300 years after its discovery by Cortez, Vanilla was produced only in its native Mexico.
Plantings were tried in many countries, but the delicate orchid never bore fruit. The mystery was not solved until 1836, when a Belgian named Charles Morren found that common insects cannot pollinate the Vanilla orchid. He observed that a tiny bee, the Melipone, which is found only in the Vanilla districts of Mexico, is uniquely equipped to bring the plant to fertilization. The bee did not survive outside Mexico and so Morren developed a method of hand-pollinating Vanilla blossoms.
Shortly after Morren's discovery, the French started to cultivate Vanilla on many of their islands in the Indian Ocean, East and West Indies and French Oceania, the Dutch planted it in Indonesia and the British in Southern India. Eventually the French took Vanilla to Reunion, an island off Madagascar's coast. There a former slave named Edmond Albius perfected a quick and simple method of hand-pollinating which is still used to this day.
This was the impetus of major cultivation in the Indian Ocean area. Scientists specializing in biotechnology have been working for several years with Vanilla plants to improve and optimize the vanilla flavor. They use tissue culture techniques to propagate Vanilla orchid plant cells with desirable flavor characteristics.
The fruit is thin and pod like, from 15 to 24 cm (6" to 10"). Seventy-five percent of all Vanilla is grown in Madagascar, Comores and Reunion Islands. The rest is produced in Indonesia, Tonga, Tahiti and Mexico.
At 2 1/2 to 3 years old, or about 25 feet in length, the vines should be tip pruned to induce flowering. Buds develop into lateral branches and on these the flowers bloom. The flowers on each branch may have 12 to 20 buds opening over a period of a month, and all are potentially capable of setting fruit following successful pollination. In the first season 100 to 150 flowers may be hand-pollinated to set pods, with an annual yield increase, and vines can produce heavily for seven to eight years. Healthy vines may bear as many as 1000 flowers, which only last about eight hours each. Pollination is most successful , during the fourth to sixth hour of flowering.
The pods are removed for processing, when the beans are fully formed and firm in the pod.
There are several methods of preparing vanilla beans. Some are first dipped in hot water from 57 to 88 C (89 to 120 F) for two to three minutes, then sweated and dried; another is to spread the beans on trays in the sun to heat for two to three hours and then fold them in blankets to sweat until the following morning. This process continues until the beans become pliable and are deep brown. The beans are then dried in well ventilated shade or drying rooms for two to four weeks.
- Use Vanilla with,sweet potatoes, yellow squash or carrots
- Add a few drops to vinaigrette dressing
- Mix pure Vanilla extract into oatmeal or cold cereal.
- Brush butter mixed with pure Vanilla over mild flavored fish, seafood or poultry during broiling.
- Stir a few drops into pancake or dessert crepe batters.
- Add Vanilla to fruit glazes for poultry and ham
- Added to club soda it gives a touch of sweetness - delicious in orange juice and lemonade.
- Mix with cream or cottage cheese.
- Add to corn fritters and cream of corn soup.
For Vanilla extract: In a covered glass jar place 1 Vanilla bean split lengthwise with 3/4 cup vodka or rum, set aside for at least 7 weeks. Add more liquor as used.
**reprinted from the Sarasota Orchid Society Newsletter, with permission of the editor.
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