The Tale of the Ice Cream Orchid

There is no substitute for natural vanilla, the world’s most exotic and sensual plant.


| April/May 2005



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Illustration by Marjorie Leggitt

Editor’s Note: The following text has been excerpted from VANILLA © 2004 by Tim Ecott and is reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

The vanilla plant is a tropical vine, which can reach a length of over 100 feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants — the orchids — currently known to contain more than 25,000 species, and counting. Of all the orchids, the vanilla family is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop, as distinct from orchids cultivated and traded simply for their decorative value. These are not rare, bizarrely shaped hothouse exotics to inspire orchid collectors with their well-documented fanatical relish. The vanilla orchid has its own appeal, a fruit with a scent so unique, so distinctive to the human palate that it was once worth its weight in silver.

The vanilla orchid is not a showy flower; it has only a slight scent, with no element of vanilla flavor or aroma. When its pale yellow flowers are pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into the fruits, just like extra-long green beans, we call ‘pods’ or ‘beans.’ They contain thousands of tiny black seeds. The growing process lasts up to nine months, but only when the pods turn brown after being dried and cured do they develop the distinctive aroma we call vanilla. Drying, curing and conditioning the pods is an art, which, if done properly, takes another nine months. Vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world.

Like all agricultural commodities, vanilla goes through periodic cycles of boom and bust prices. Even at its lowest level, there will always be farmers in Madagascar, Mexico or Indonesia who are so poor that they will cultivate vanilla vines. As I write, the price for gourmet quality vanilla beans is at an all-time high — more than $500 a kilogram — inspiring growers to stand guard over their plants in the tropical jungle.

There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid, and they grow all over the tropics with the exception of Australia. All of the vanilla orchids produce fruits containing seeds, but only a few species bear the large, aromatic pods, which can be used commercially. Virtually all of the cultivated vanilla in the world today comes from just one species, Vanilla planifolia (sometimes called Vanilla fragrans), a plant indigenous to Central America, and particularly the southeastern part of Mexico. At least two other varieties, Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitensis also provide a serviceable culinary pod, although they are not as readily obtainable and they produce a different flavor and aroma to the planifolia.

AN ENCHANTED PAST

Vanilla is one of the most widely used flavoring substances in the world and Americans consume more vanilla than anyone else on earth.

williamsjones
4/30/2014 12:30:42 AM

Really! I can't believe this. It is a great news. Our farming sector now try to fulfill all demand of food or products extract by orchid flower demand by people. Orchid flowers are very beautiful and like by all. Orchid flower use to make several products. We can found a large number of orchid products available in market. I like vanilla ice cream. It feel nice to know its relation with orchid flower. http://www.gsplantfoods.com/orchid-love.html






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