What is vanilla?
Vanilla, is the fruit of a thick green orchid vine (planifolia Andrews or tahitensis) that grows wildly on the edge of tropical forests. The vines, when grown wild, need to grow at the foot of a tree (gliciridia or jatropha) in order to climb. Commercial pruning is carried out for various reasons. Firstly, because vines will not flower until they stop growing. Secondly, because vines need to grow at a height where workers can easily reach them.
Once the vines stop growing, they produce clusters of buds that eventually develop into orchids, with up to 1,000 flowers on each vine. Not all of the flowers are hand pollinated though. They are thinned out to guarantee good quality beans. After hand pollination, the flowers develop into long, thin green pods or beans that can grow up to 10 inches long; average length is about 6 inches. These tasteless and odourless green beans are handpicked at maturity (9 months) and at this point, the curing process can begin.
Curing is a long and intensive process that can last from 4 to 6 months, or until the beans become a very dark brown colour and fully develop their aroma and taste.
One of the most important flavour compounds is vanillin; high vanillin content is an indicator of quality.