Vanilla was used by the Aztecs to flavor chocolate, and they introduced the Spanish explorers to both.
The first use of vanilla dates back to Mexico, where the Aztecs used it to create a drink called Xoco-lall, made from cocoa and vanilla beans. Cortez is credited with bringing vanilla back to Spain and soon, its use spread to other parts of Europe. Today, vanilla beans from Madagascar are the gold standard to which all others are compared. Madagascar produces the majority of the world’s vanilla; however, vanilla is also grown in such tropical climates as Indonesia, Mexico, Uganda, Tonga, and Comoros.
The vanilla plant, Vanilla planifolia, is a slender, green-stemmed creeping or climbing perennial of the orchid family. Cultivating vanilla beans is a lengthy and labor-intensive process, as each flower must be hand pollinated to ensure it produces a bean. To complicate matters, a flower only lives for one day. Its beans grow to between 6 and 10 inches long and resemble a green string bean. Knowing the vanilla products to which we’re accustomed, it’s hard to believe that freshly harvested vanilla beans have no flavor or aroma. To develop their signature flavor, the beans must endure an elaborate, three- to four-month curing and sun drying process. Once this is complete, the beans are graded and bundled to ship to the United States.
When the beans arrive in the United States, they are either packaged as vanilla beans, or used to create the amber liquid known as the magic spoonful – pure vanilla extract. They are chopped and percolated in large stainless steel containers, much like coffee percolators. The vanilla extract is aged to perfection before it is bottled and sent to the grocery store.
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The next time you are in the grocery store and wonder why pure vanilla extract is so expensive, consider the following:
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