Vanilla is the fruit of the planifolia or the tahitensis orchid, the only two orchard species of thousands that bear edible fruit. The vanilla orchid’s flowers rely on hand pollination to produce fruit; the fruit pods are harvested and cured, during which enzymes cause a chemical change that produces the aromatic compound vanillin.
Vanilla is an expensive ingredient due to the labour-intensive production process. Synthetic vanilla, sometimes called vanilla essence, is produced from the wood derivative guaiacol and much less expensive. However it falls flat on aroma and bears an unfortunate bitter aftertaste. Good quality vanilla pods are worth the investment; choose fair-trade vanilla that are deep brown, and still soft and supple like a giant raisin. Vanilla is also available in the form of ground powder, paste and extract.
The flavour of vanilla beans is very complex and dependent on its terroir, much like wine grapes and cacao beans. The main types of vanilla beans are Madagascar (classic), Tonga (bold), Uganda (bold) and Tahiti (floral).
Medicinally, vanilla is a nervine, sedative and considered an aphrodisiac.« Back to Glossary Index