Irresistible Little Pod. Your sweet smell and delicious taste were unknown until the discovery of the Americas. The Aztecs had already cultivated the vine and the flower for years before the Conquistadors named you first vaina and then vainilla (small pod in Spanish) because of the shape of your fruits. They brought you back to Europe, along with cocoa, to surprise the Royal palates and the amazement transformed into a passion. What would be our world today without vanilla and cocoa?
Even if Indonesia became the first producer of vanilla today, it is in Madagascar that its cultivation first flourished. Native of Mexico, occupied then by the Spanish, the plant became so much coveted by the French aristocracy that it became necessary to farm it in a French colony for economic reasons. The French chose their Île Bourbon, known today as Reunion Island, and Madagascar, to acclimate the American orchid, with success. “Bourbon vanilla” became synonymous with high-quality beans with a complex aromatic spectrum.
Vanilla is an orchid, and its flower opens only a few hours during which the pollination must take place, before to wither. The Melipona bee, indigenous of Mexico, is the only insect invited for the nuptial work. In Madagascar and all other producing countries, the delicate and tedious operation is realized by human hand as no Melipona bee can live outside its native habitat. The scentless pods need then up to ten months to mature on the plant before to be collected and cured for another half-year. Curing is a lengthy process of sweating and drying the beans until they develop crystalline vanillin on their surface. This substance is the essence of vanilla flavor as we all know it.
The price of vanilla is very high as a consequence of the time and care needed to produce it. In response to the soaring demand, the chemists of the nineteenth century have researched on the synthesis of vanillin and succeeded to isolate the compound in 1858. Today, vanillin can be economically extracted from various raw materials, the most common being the resin of guaiac wood.
Vanilla pods and their cute little seeds are enjoyed in home-made and fine desserts for their sweet and complex taste. More often, vanilla essence or vanilla sugar are used as convenient flavoring agents for food. Lower price treats generally use artificial vanillin instead of a natural extract. The vanilla flavor is today omnipresent, either in the front stage or the background of fruity and dairy products, chocolates, cookies, coffee, maple syrup, etc.. The demand for vanillin exceed 15,000 tons today and about 10% only is produced from natural vanilla, the rest being synthesized.
Vanilla is also a major component in modern perfumery since the early 90’s. Expensive vanilla absolute is sometimes used to create a rich note, but more commonly a combination of vanillin, maltol, coumarin, and heliotropin is behind the sweet note. These essences add some natural sweetness to the blend and a comforting feeling often related to childhood memories. Oriental fragrances, as we saw last week, usually use vanilla as a base or even as a heart note.
My top 5 picks of fragrances with a beautiful note of vanilla are:
- Vanille Charnelle by Annick Goutal. In this delicate unisex fragrance, the vanilla note is supported by tonka beans and ylang-ylang, and spiced by some black pepper. Vetiver and white musk complete the magnificent creation.
- Sweet Vanilla by Montale. Only vanilla and apricot notes in a gourmand accord that one feel like drinking the nectar. Very addictive and rather feminine, even if given as a unisex perfume. Montale has four vanilla-based fragrances, try them all!
- Comptoir Sud-Pacifique with its unbelievable line of sweet scents, all combining the note of vanilla with a second one in a superb accord. Try Vanille Passion, their first one launched in 1975, with green and black vanilla notes complemented by a sensual musk. Awesome!
- L’Eau des Beavx from L’Occitane en Provence. A perfect winter scent, more unisex than masculine in contrary to what is specified on the bottle. This oriental-woody juice is an elegant blend of vanilla with cypress wood, frankincense and spices.
- One of my summer discovery, Fleur des Comores by Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier, is a sublime summer fruity-floral vanilla with hypnotizing notes of passionfruit and blackcurrant. I love it and could surely wear it, even if this is essentially a feminine fragrance.
That’s All, Folks! It’s time now to wear my apron, roll up my sleeves and prepare a crême brulée for my family this weekend and celebrate the irresistible little pod with my loved ones. See you next week!