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lundi 3 août 2015

Tahiti vanilla

Black gold of Polynesian islands

In gastronomy as in cosmetics, the fragrance of Tahiti vanilla is considered an ultimate. But what is vanilla, and where did it come from?

Vanilla is an orchid native from Mexico. The Totonacs, first discovered the fruit of this orchidaceae and vowed a worship to it for centuries.

The beautiful and delicate flower of the vanilla plant
The Aztecs, them, used it, as "Tlilxochtil", for flavoring their chocolate.

Short History of Vanilla tahitensis
Imported into Spain by the conquistadors, it despairs the botanists of the time. Deprived of its fertilizing agent, the Melipona bee which exists only in Mexico, vanilla was barren. In 1841, an artificial insemination technique is worked out to fertilize and produce finally these famous pods.

Mountainside vanilla plants
Vanilla tahitensis was introduced in Polynesia by Admiral Hamelin in 1848.

Long regarded as a crossbreeding between Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla pompona, it would be in fact a subspecies of Vanilla planifolia, variety recognized as the most fragrant and most fruity.

Specificity of the Vanilla planifolia
This is the genus the most cultivated in Polynesia. Unlike the fragrans species, this vanilla is indehiscent when it grows in the Polynesian climate, namely, it does not open at maturity: it remains fleshy.

So the Polynesians can pick it when it is at the peak of its flavor and aroma. The "ordinary" vanilla, dehiscent, explodes at maturity. We must pluck it before it is ripe, depriving ourselves of the best of its qualities.

In Polynesia, the plantations are found at Huahine, Raiatea and especially at Taha'a that produces plants with renowned aroma.

A single molecule
"Tahiti" Vanilla is distinguished from other vanillas by its unique aromas. It contains heliotropin, very heady perfume. The para-hydroxybenzoic acid is also found in a very high proportion. Vanillin is, unlike, in much smaller quantities.

Interest in Tahitian vanilla has redoubled when researchers discovered in its pods, ethyl vanillin.

This molecule has a flavor intensity which is three to four times greater than that of vanillin. It was previously an exclusively artificial flavor. Its discovery in nature was a small revolution.

The vanilla plant
The Polynesian vanilla plants belong to two different species: Vanilla tahitensis, grown almost exclusively in the Western Society Islands, and Vanilla fragrans located among a best weather in the Austral Islands.

A vanilla plant in its natural environment
It is a shade plant. It thrives in the valleys and moist places sheltered from the wind enjoying a moderate sunlight. She needs a prop on which to cling to grow and develop.

A climbing orchid with thick, elongated leaves, it wraps around a support like a tree. Adventitious roots develop on the stem and fix the plant on its stake. Its flowers are small and white.

The marriage of vanilla
Vanilla is naturally sterile. A slave of Réunion Island, Edmond Albius, managed to artificially fertilize it in 1861.

Without the Melipona bee, its natural pollinator, fertilization should be done by the human hand. We call this process the marriage. It is practiced in the morning between 6 and 11:00 a.m., the corolla opening up only at those hours.

The flower of vanilla just before insemination
The stamen has an anther with two bags containing a mass of agglomerated pollen grains, the pollinium. Pollen is separated from the stigma on which it is to germinate, by a little stem.

The vanilla wedding comprises obtaining the pollinium to settle it on the stigma of the flower, for allowing the pollen to germinate and fertilize the ovules.

The fruit, vanilla bean, grows to reach fifteen to twenty centimeters.

The harvest
Nine months after the wedding, the pod becomes pale green, then yellow and finally brown at its end: it's time to harvest.

Vanilla Pods in bulk at the start of the drying period.
The pods are put for five days in the dark where they become uniformly brown. Then they are deposited in a drying rack during three months. They then lose three quarters of their water and turn brown without drying out. During drying, the flavor develops.

In the sunshine, drying vanilla beans
They can then be marketed. As with wine, there are good and bad years and good and bad regions for vanilla.

The production
In the fifties, Polynesia was the second largest producer of vanilla with two hundred tons, behind Madagascar. Since then, production has continued to decline until to collapse in 1970 with a few hundred kilos.

Vanilla bean, black gold of Taha'a
Today, Polynesia no longer produced annually as seven to fifteen tons of vanilla against more than a thousand in Madagascar.

The Polynesians have begun to resume production of this unique product, work is starting to bear fruits.

The uses
In cosmetics, the Tahitian vanilla bean is used in many products for its richness in polyphenols with anti-radical and cell protective actions.

Vanilla beans, gourmets' delight, at the shop stalls
It also enters the composition of many perfume products.

And, of course, it is used in a variety of cooking recipes worldwide.

An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak

Copyright Julien Gué and Monak. Ask for the authors’ agreement before any reproduction of the text or the images on Internet or traditional press.

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