Vanilla beans are diversely useful when it comes to the kitchen. They add flavor to bland dishes while enhancing the taste and aroma of other delicious treats. But have you ever wondered why these beans are as expensive as they are?
The simple answer is that growing these beans is a very time and labor consuming activity. Here we shall look at how Bourbon Madagascar vanilla beans and the likes are grown and harvested.
Vanilla beans are beans in name only. They are actually the plant of the Vanilla Planifolia, an Orchid plant that was primarily found in Mexico. To successfully grow whole vanilla beans a farmer must start by planting such an Orchid plant in richly fertile soil.
In order for the Orchid to grow successfully a humid climate is required. Temperatures should be between 15 and 30 degrees centigrade, while rainfall is needed regularly. As such, the majority of vanilla beans are produced in tropical climates, including those of Mexico, Tahiti, Indonesia and Madagascar are considered particularly rich, making it the African island one of the favored produces of vanilla in the world. Bourbon Madagascar vanilla beans account for about a third of global production.
It is recommended that plants are set between September and November in these tropic climates.
To successfully grow whole vanilla beans farmers must pay close attention to the plants that grow on the Orchid tree. Beans emerge after blossoms have been pollinated. The Vanilla Planifolia can only be naturally pollinated by Mexican bees known as the Melipona. As these bees cannot exist anywhere except Mexico, most vanilla orchids are manually pollinated.
The blossoms of the Orchid plant are only susceptible to pollination for a few hours, meaning farmers have to check regularly to see which blossoms are ready. A number of artificial pollination methods can be adopted, but they all stem from a process invented by Edmond Albius, which requires the transference of male pollen from the anther to the female stigma using a stick or similar simple device.
Pollination takes place in spring.
Vanilla Orchid plants grow upwards, vine-like. As they grow older they change from a dark brown color to a yellowish green. As with the pollination process, deciding when vanilla beans have fully matured is a long and laborious task.
It takes approximately 10 months for the beans to mature, although no two beans are the same so one may be ready one month early while another may require an additional month or two. As such, a farmer again needs to check on each individual bean on an almost daily basis.
When a bean is ready (it should be between 10 and 15 centimeters) it is hand-picked and prepared for curing.
The process of curing beans from the vanilla orchid is as follows:
After the bean is picked, a farmer will remove any necessary vegetative matter to prevent the bean from growing. It is possible for vanilla beans to grown after being removed from the Orchid plant, but once they have reached an optimum length they are likely to split, thus wasting the bean.
Sweating involves heating the beans up for a set period of time. There are a number of methods that can be used, including exposing the whole vanilla beans to the sun, using an oven, or wrapping them in cloth and leaving in a hot place (45-65 degrees centigrade). The act of sweating gives the beans their distinctive dark coloring. Due to a mixture of the Madagascan sun and the bean’s genetic make-up, Bourbon Madagascar vanilla beans are some of the darkest vanilla beans you are likely to see.
During the sweating process, vanilla beans retain water to the extent that nearly 70 per cent of the bean is moisture. Farmers therefore spend up to four weeks drying these whole vanilla beans out. Again, each bean must be carefully and evenly dried to prevent loss of vanillin.
Following this the beans are stored in boxes for up to six months for conditioning. This allows the vanilla flavor and aroma to reach its highest and most aromatic point. Only after all of this, which takes years in total, can the likes of Bourbon Madagascar vanilla beans be prepared for export, shipping and your kitchen.