A native of Mexico, vanilla (which just means “little pod” in Spanish) was first planted in Madagascar in the 1800s. It is the only one of 30,000-plus species of orchids around the world that produces a fruit. To be exact, the 110-species genus of Vanilla is the only one that produces fruit – of which just two species, Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis are grown commercially. Like many orchids, vanilla is a vine, and sends out aerial roots to its host or support. In vanilla plantations, the vines are grown on support trees especially planted for the purpose.
Vanilla – much taken for granted in everything from fizzy drinks to ice cream – is a serious business, and one of the most labour intensive crops in the world. Every blossom, for example, has to be pollinated by hand – in its natural state in Mexico, the plant is pollinated exclusively by a single species of bee. Although the vanilla orchid needs plenty of warmth, water and sun, it also needs a good deal of shade, so plantations are typically established beneath the scattered “forest giant” remnants of virgin rainforest. Once the pods have been ripened and picked, a process of washing in hot water and slow drying has to take place (taking several weeks) before they are properly cured and ready for export, with tiny crystals of pure vanillin, crusting the black, twisted surface. That substance, vanillin, can now be manufactured synthetically – to the delight of the big food conglomerates. Fortunately for the vanilla growers of Sava, artisanal production and organic methods also have a market, especially among connoisseurs of one of the world’s most underrated flavours.