Vanilla: Sweet and Romantic

Although chocolate is in the spotlight on Valentine’s Day, it’s not this delicious, decadent, gourmet wonder that I’m going to talk about today. I want to share with you romance, delicacy and refinement on this holiday of love. What would be our tender treats be without the unique flavor that is… vanilla?

Photo: tirados joselito.

The Essential Ingredient for All Sweet Sins and Spa Days

Vanilla has a sweet and delicate scent that is often associated with love and romance.

(Frankly, after a big piece of chocolate cake, I feel heavier and sleepier than after a light vanilla one! One of them makes for a better end to a romantic evening, if you know what I mean…!)

Think for a moment about your cake, pancake, creme brulee, pie recipes… (I’m making myself hungry!) What is the common ingredient besides sugar? Probably a teaspoon of vanilla extract. This flavor, while it gets lost in our recipes, adds a delicate, slightly sweet aroma that flavors all desserts nicely. Try it: cook a pancake before adding the final ingredient to your mix. It’s subtle, but it’s not the same.

And what about soaps, perfumes and body lotions? Look in your cupboards; I’m willing to bet you have soaps or bubble baths that smell like vanilla-orchid or vanilla latte.

Personally, I love this smell. It reminds me of softness, self-care, pampering… Cocooning. Even the word vanilla itself sounds sweet. Honestly, would you buy a soap called “pods and sprouts”? Nah… “Vanilla Lavender” sounds much more delicate.

Photo: Ferawan.

The Passionate and Melancholy Production of This Sweet Aromatic Pod

Is it too much? I don’t think so. This subject, particularly discussed on February 14, deserves the most poeticaly lexical language. Why is that? Because in addition to being a flavor or scent with the sweetness of a sugar cloud, its manufacture itself is an ode to love and romance.

Being a sweet smell, and often associated with childhood as much as romance, I decided to tell you about the birth of these delicious pods in the form of a Valentine’s Day tale. It goes as follows:

Once upon a time there was a little vanilla flower called Vanilla, who lived in a far away country where there were no pollinators. Vanilla was very sad because she could not produce a delicious pod for people all over the world. She dreamed of feeling the caress of the wind on her petals and hearing the gentle sound of a pollinator’s wings as it came to deposit the precious pollen in her center.

One day, Vanilla saw a matchmaker. She had a very important job: she fertilized vanilla flowers that, like Vanilla, did not grow in America, where there are pollinators. The matchmaker approached Vanilla and said, “Hello, little flower, I have come to pass on my love for vanilla to you.” Vanilla was very happy to see such a lovely and dedicated person. And the matchmaker impregnated Vanilla with extreme gentleness.

Time passed and Vanilla felt that something wonderful was happening inside her. She began to produce a delicious little pod. People from all over the world were able to taste the sweet taste of vanilla because of the love and dedication of the matchmaker.

The End.

The Orchid Behind the Story

That’s it for the cute . If you prefer a less censored version, here it is:

This orchid is a flower that grows in humid undergrowth in long lianas that cling to trees. Some cultures under a veil that protects from direct sun also exist. Although the plant is native to central and southern America, vanilla production has spread to many parts of the world where the climate is tropical. Since insect pollinators have not kept up, humans must step in to pollinate the flowers. What we are interested in is the pod, the fruit, of this plant. Without pollination, there is no pod!

Vanilla plant in its natural habitat. Photo: David Monniaux.
Immature pods. Photo: Bouba.

But it’s not so simple! The flower is only fertile for a few hours in the morning, if it is not raining. The person responsible for fertilization, called the “marieuse”, must therefore be present at the right time. Moreover, delicacy is required during the process, since the cap, which protects the male reproductive organs of the flower, must be pierced. Then, with great care, you have to straighten a strip in the flower that is between the male and female organs, to finally pinch together these two parts. All this, without damaging or tearing the flower… I personally have difficulty passing a thread through the eye of a needle!

Admire the skill!

Without them (and I imagine that in 2023, men can also practice this profession), vanilla beans would only grow in their country of origin, and even then, in much smaller quantities, considering that pollinators do not wait every morning for the moment to do their work.

The Three Species of Vanilla

Have you ever stood in front of an intoxicating vanilla-scented display and wondered, “Madagascar, Mexico, Indonesia… vanilla, isn’t that just… vanilla??”

I often end up thinking: if I were rich, I would take one of each!!! (Because let’s be honest, $15 for two pods… really!?)

Pro tip: buy them in bulk, it’s much, MUCH cheaper! The little vial at the grocery store is cute, but really… $15? No. Just no.

So here’s the truth about the different flavors of vanilla:

There are three species of vanilla, each with a more or less different flavor profile. Vanilla planifolia is the species with the most vanillin, the molecule responsible for, you guessed it, the sweet smell and flavor of vanilla. Vanilla tahitensis, or Tahitian vanilla, is a species with a somewhat aniseed-like aroma profile, as is Vanilla pompona, also known as Vanillon, which will also have a coumarin (hay-like) smell. This last variety is, however, intended for the local market in Mexico, is cultivated only in Guadeloupe, and is not exported.

So, back to my vanilla display. There are probably only two species in the bunch: the Tahitian vanilla, and the planifolia (which has no easy little name).

The first question you should ask yourself: Do you like anise (licorice, fennel)?

Yes: Tahiti, no: planifolia.

“Yes, but Audrey, bourbon, Madagascar, Mexico and so on!?”

Just like coffee, tea, cocoa and other plants, the climate (humidity, light, minerals available in the soil…) slightly influences the flavor. The concentration of this or that molecule will be different and the taste will vary slightly.

Personally, if I’m going to put it in a chocolate cake, I’ll go with the cheapest one. If I’m making homemade vanilla ice cream and it has all the time in the world to shine… I’ll still go with the cheaper one because it’s delicious just the same! But it would be more worthwhile to explore in these kinds of recipes where vanilla is at the forefront than in your cake that has lots of other flavors!

If you know anything about vanilla, please comment: is it really worth it, or is vanilla always good?

A Poem for Valentine’s Day

I won’t give you the complete history of the conquests, the cutting, and the spice route. Nor will I recount all the myths and legends about vanilla. Let’s be serious: this is a gardening blog and my article is already quite long!

But to end on a high note, I’ve chosen to give you a wonderful Valentine’s Day gift!

Since I am “in”, I am experimenting with artificial intelligence. So I asked this AI to write you… a poem! I asked her to write about vanilla and an Aztec myth about the princess Tzacopontziza, who turned into a vanilla flower. (Note that this people is well known for having created a cocoa drink, the ancestor of hot chocolate. What few people know, however, is that a hint of vanilla was added to sweeten this beverage reserved for high society. I know, I said no history and myths… But I know that deep down, you love it 😉 )

Photo: AlejandroLinaresGarcia.

The Poem Goes as Follows:

Vanilla, a fragrance so sweet, so suave,
A nectar of the gods, a fragrance divine,
From distant and exotic lands,
Carrying with it a world of mystery.
Black and shiny flower, with a sweet perfume,
A symphony of flavors, so delicate and silky,
Awakening the senses, with a sweet kiss,
Each pod is a precious and rare jewel.
In cakes and desserts, it is a star,
Adding a touch of luxury and refinement,
Bringing back memories of childhood,
Of the warmth of summer days and the sweetness of life.
Vanilla, a love story, of a princess and a prince,
Transformed into a flower for eternity,
To remind us of the beauty of love, the strength of courage,
And to enchant us with its enchanting fragrance.
And so, every time we smell her enchanting fragrance,
we are transported to a world of dreams and delights,
And we are reminded of vanilla, the sweetest flower,
A gift from heaven, a fragrance for eternity.

Not sure of the quality of this poem… but hey, it’s the thought that counts! 😀

Oh and… Just to keep this article romantic and elegant, I won’t tell you that artificial vanilla extract comes from a beaver’s anal gland… oops!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

5 comments on “Vanilla: Sweet and Romantic

  1. Harold Vos

    As a Canadian expat who moved to Borneo to grow vanilla, I find your article quite delightful.
    From our small farm of about 1500 plants we have finally gathered pods from our vanilla this year. It takes 3-4 years to bloom and nine months to develop the pod. Because we grow V.tahitensis the curing process is a little shorter, three months as compared to V.planifolia which is nine months.

    There are many issues to deal with as in any kind of farming, insects and rainy weather when you are supposed to be sun curring.

    For us it is not about the money we make, that will go to charity. It’s about a passion as a gardener to grow plants and to keep an old man from getting bored. This vanilla growing is a commitment, seven days a week. Like our Canadian postman, thru rain, sleet or snow I must go to pollinate. I love every minute of it.

  2. Christine Lemieux

    Wow! No wonder it is expensive!

  3. Great one today. Thanks

  4. Nancy Splan

    Excellent article and video! Thank you!!

  5. Jt Michaels

    Really fun, Audrey! Thank you. Happy Valentine’s Day to you and to all the garden lovers who read this wonderful blog.

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