Ancestral know-how

The vanilla pod as we know it does not arrive in this form in nature.
Bunch of vanilla
Left to itself and in the wild, even in countries where it is naturally pollinated by the melipone bee endemic to Mexico, Central America and South America, vanilla does not reveal any taste or even any worthy perfume of mention.
Wild Vanilla
It is only with the help of an expert and human hand that vanilla develops this fragrance among the most captivating that this planet harbors.
The traces of the origins of this adventure are lost in the memories of the Tototacians, a people with pre-Columbian origins still present in the state of Veracruz in Mexico. The very people who dominated the vanilla market for almost 150 years, until a young 12-year-old slave from Reunion Island named Edmond Albius, succeeds in penetrating the mystery of the fertilization of the orchid, despite what its sympathetic descendants think in this hyperlink. Because so far, tall attempts to pollinate this orchid outside its natural range of origin ended in failure because neither the melipone bee nor the pollinating hummingbird of vanilla could never survive elsewhere.

The process used today is still the same as that discovered by Edmond Albius. It is practiced early every morning because the flowers have a brief life of a few hours at the start of the day; and in dry weather, because the rain has the effect of thwarting the formation of the fruit.

The flower is held gently with one hand, a finger serving as a fulcrum under the column (the central part of the flower). With a pointed but not sharp instrument, a thorn for example, the cap which protects the male sexual organs is torn apart. With this same instrument, we then straighten the tongue (the rostellum) which separates the female organs from the male part and the cheesecloth carrying the pollen towards the stigma thus released by exerting a small pressure to ensure good contact.

If this patient operation is not enough to convince you of the merits of the price of current vanilla prices, know that the adventure does not end there.
The fruit takes nine months to ripen before it begins to develop the desired aromatic molecules and it is only in the last few weeks that they become concentrated in the pod. Picking them too early cancels any possibility of flavor development. As surprising as it may seem, there is an immature vanilla contraband market called "Potsa" in Madagascar. Severely punished by the Malagasy government, this practice unfortunately tends to become widespread, due to the insatiable demand of industrialists producing extracts.
I develop this subject further in one of my blogs, but know that what characterizes a quality harvest, a poor harvest at this stage of the process, is the picking method. If vanilla is picked from the cluster, as requested by industrial producers concerned with the lowest possible cost, the average level of vanillin in a cluster can vary from 0 to 2%. This implies that some pods can be exquisite, and others, tasteless, because they do not all mature at the same rate. It is not a banana bunch !!

The secret of a succulent vanilla pod is jealous care of picking the pods one by one, at the peak of their ripening. In addition, the full ripening of vanilla promotes the development of enzymes and essential oil that allow it to better resist bacteria and fungi that can contaminate vanilla throughout the drying process.

Unfortunately this practice has been lost almost everywhere in Madagascar and is almost absent in all the new producing countries, except among some isolated craftsmen of our knowledge ...

The transformation of a perfectly odorless fruit into a spice soft and pleasantly scented requires careful and methodical preparation, the principles of which in four stages have been developed in Mexico for a long time. After picking at a specific time; neither too early nor too late, it is subjected to a thermal shock which seals the maturation of the pod, followed by a series of processing, drying and sorting operations which last almost ten months before reaching the gourmet vanilla pod end product.

The shock of scalding is practiced according to several methods, either in the oven, in the cold, in infrared rays or in alcohol, but the means, today, the most commonly used is a bath of hot water, as on this illustration.
1) Scalding in wicker baskets filled with ripe vanilla pods (up to 30 kg per basket). They are immersed for three minutes, no more, in water brought to 65C (150F).

    Scalding

    2) Steaming: After scalding, the pods are placed between wool blankets in large boxes for a maximum of 24 hours. Thus kept warm, they lose 50% of their water, evolve enzymatically and acquire their chocolate brown color;

      Steaming

      3) Drying: for two to six weeks, depending on its potential quality level, the vanilla is dried a few hours a day first in the oven 65 ° C (150F) on racks, then in the sun, and finally in the shade for the best quality, and finally put in trunks.

      Drying

      4) Refining. This crucial stage of the process lasts for eight to 10 months, and even two years in Réunion. The vanilla pods are placed in wooden trunks covered with parchment paper and it is during this period that the aroma develops; the trunks are visited at least weekly to remove any moldy pods that contaminate the others; This is where it gets tough. Many new producing countries bypass this step by simply putting their vanilla under vacuum in order to gain a little weight in water in the sale by the kilo, and avoid the losses of moldy vanilla during ripening. If you are ever offered one, beware!
      Vanilla in boots
      After processing, comes sizing and packaging. This stage, made very rough in the majority of the new producing countries, is still very important and well valued in Madagascar. It makes it possible to sort the pods according to their length, while carrying out a final sorting: the slightly split at the foot among the most beautiful qualities; the split "belly" and "throat" among the second quality vanilla. The longer ones, full of caviar and slightly split at the base, will be the best valued. The pods of the same length are then bundled, and bagged with enough air to breathe well.
      Here below: poor conditioning
      Poor conditioning
      Here: good packaging for transport
      Good conditioning