Real vanilla has always been expensive because wresting it from nature is a time and labor-consuming enterprise and because it is grown in faraway lands.
And like cacao, cashew nuts, and coffee beans, vanilla is a commodity subject to the vagaries of nature and to the laws of supply and demand. All four of these highly esteemed indulgences come from tropical latitudes, where storms periodically decimate crops and thus affect prices all over the world.
I can’t explain economics (I sometimes think nobody can), but what I can do is explain the nature of real vanilla, how it differs from imitation vanilla, and what the Mexican products may or may not consist of.
First, real vanilla.
Vanilla beans are not beans. They’re the fermented and dried seed pods (fruits) from one of two species of climbing-vine orchid plants, Vanilla tahitensis, native to the Pacific Islands, or Vanilla planifolia, native to Mexico. The Aztecs in Mexico were the first to marry vanilla’s flavor with the seeds of another native plant, the one we now know as chocolate. (Talk about marriages made in heaven!) The Spanish conquistadors came up with the word vainilla, meaning “little scabbard, sheath, or pod,” referring to the shape of the vanilla bean.
Today, about three quarters of the world’s vanilla production is of the Mexican V. planifolia variety but grown on the islands of Madagascar, the Comoros, and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. In the early nineteenth century these islands were under the rule of the Bourbon kings of France, and the vanilla from this region is still known as Bourbon vanilla. (No relation to you know what.)
When the vanilla orchid plant blooms, it produces only a few flowers at a time. Each flower opens in the morning, closes in the afternoon, and if not pollinated drops dead from the vine the following day. If it is to bear its valuable fruit it must be pollinated during the morning hours of its day of glory.
How, then, did vanilla plants manage to reproduce and survive for eons before humans came along and tried to cultivate them? Attempts to grow vanilla in parts of the world other than Mexico were unsuccessful for about three hundred years. Eventually it was discovered that a small bee of the genus Melipona, native only to Mexico, had been quietly doing the pollination job, as bees are known to do. Today, almost all vanilla flowers in both Mexico and Madagascar are pollinated by human hands, using thin slivers of wood inserted precisely into each flower at precisely the right time. No bee was ever so meticulous. (Are you beginning to understand why vanilla is so expensive?)
When the vanilla pod reaches its maximum length of about 8 inches, it is harvested, dried in the sun for 10 to 30 days, and covered at night to sweat and ferment. Only then will the pods have developed their magnificent flavor and aroma.
Some 170 different chemicals have been identified in the aroma of vanilla, but most of it comes from the aromatic phenolic compound vanillin. Fortunately or unfortunately, humans can make vanillin much more efficiently than vanilla plants can. It can be synthesized from eugenol, the principal aromatic constituent of clove oil, or from guaiacol, a chemical found in tropical tree resins. Vanillin can also be made from lignin, a structural component of woody plants and a byproduct of the manufacture of paper from wood pulp. But vanillin is no longer made that way in the United States or Canada because the process is environmentally unacceptable.
Synthetic vanillin is the main ingredient in artificial or “imitation” vanilla, which costs much less than real vanilla extract and is actually not too bad a substitute for the real thing, although it lacks the complexity of natural vanilla flavor. Synthetic vanillin used as a flavoring in packaged foods must be labeled as an artificial flavor.
Whole vanilla beans are sold in airtight containers to keep them from drying out and losing their flowery bouquet. They should be as dark and soft as a stick of licorice candy, not too hard or leathery. Most of the flavor resides in and around the thousands of almost microscopic seeds, which can be exposed by slitting the bean lengthwise. They can be scraped out with the tip of a knife and added to custards, sauces, and batters. But the seed-shorn pod still contains a lot of flavor. Bury it in a jar of sugar, tightly covered, and leave it for a couple of weeks. Use the vanilla-suffused sugar in, well, custards, sauces, and batters.
Vanilla extract is much more convenient to use than whole beans.
In its inimitable bureaucratic style, the FDA defines Pure Vanilla Extract as “the solution in aqueous ethyl alcohol of the sapid and odorous principles extractable from vanilla beans.” To be labeled as such it must have an alcohol content of at least 35 percent by volume (higher concentration of alcohol extracts more of vanilla’s subtle flavor) and be made from no less than 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon. (Don’t ask.) It may contain sugar and other ingredients such as glycerin or propylene glycol for smoothness, but if it contains added synthetic vanillin, it must be labeled Imitation Vanilla Flavoring.
And finally, the Mexican connection.
Mexico lost its world leadership in vanilla production when the revolution of 1910 destroyed most of its Gulf Coast vanilla plantations. But its reputation lingers on, and Mexican “vanilla extract” is widely available. But because labeling laws aren’t enforced in Mexico as strictly as they are in the United States, Mexican “vanilla extract” may be a vanillin-based imitation flavoring.
Worse yet, some Mexican and Caribbean vanilla products might contain coumarin (1,2-benzopyrone), which is extracted from the bean-like seeds of the tonka tree, Dipteryx odorata (cumaru in Spanish). Coumarin has a strong vanilla-like aroma but is toxic; under the name warfarin it is used as rat poison because it thins the blood and the poisoned rats bleed to death internally. As the drug coumadin, it is used as an anticoagulant in the treatment of heart disease.
Coumarin was completely banned as a food additive by the FDA in 1954.
The bottom-line caveat is this: Be wary of Mexican and Caribbean “vanilla” liquids. At best, they may be imitation, made from synthetic vanillin, and at worst, they may contain coumarin. In theory, the FDA is supposed to block the import of coumarin containing products, but coumarin has been found in some imports that slipped through.