One of Tahiti’s vety special contributions to the culinary world is its fragrant vanilla beans. Having utilized it for baking over the decades, it took this #Windstarcruises event to learn how vanilla actually grows, how it is processed, and why it is such a costly element in stores around the world.
Firstly, I didn’t know that vanilla is in the orchid family of plants. In fact, it is the only edible orchid and it comes in several varieties. The most common – 95% of global production – is of the Bourbon (vanilla planifolia) kind that hails from Madagascar. I also learned that all vanilla plants originated centuries ago in Mexico’s tropical jungles and were exported from there as a high-value crop by the Spanish.
Secondly, from manually performed pollination to beans ready for harvest, 12 months pass. Then the beans get dried in the sun for 60 days which ripens them to dark brown with about 60% of moisture lost in the process. Then comes the labor of love part. Every bean has to be massaged daily for a further 90 days in a dark dry space to fully develop its flavor. only then are the beans ready for packaging and sale.
Thirdly, Tahitian vanilla is the most fragrant type of bean with 36 flavor compounds versus only 18 for bourbon vanilla. Tge French botanical gardens in Paris helped develop this varietal in the 17th century by grafting Philippine vanilla adorata with vanilla fragrante into what is now referred to as vanilla tahitiensis x. It is pure magic to bake and cook with. Now I know that the price for a good vanilla bean is justified.