How did vanilla become synonymous with blandness?

FROM a PROFIT perspective, the appeal of synthetic vanillin is clear. True vanilla is a demanding crop, so labor intensive that the market value of the pods has sometimes exceeded that of money, weight for weight. And since each bean only produces at best 2% vanillin, the cost of pure vanilla is even higher. In 2017, after a cyclone decimated farms in the mountains of northeast Madagascar, where around 80 percent of the world’s natural vanilla is grown, the price of beans soared to more than $600 per kilogram, which , at the rate of 20 grams of vanillin per kilogram, kilogram of beans, works out to $30,000 per kilogram of pure vanilla. In 2012, 80.7 percent of the country’s population was subsisting on $2.15 a day, and while the vanilla boom may have boosted incomes, it also drastically inflated prices – a chicken suddenly cost $10. — and sparked a proliferation of crime, with machete patrols needed to protect fields (as Wendell Steavenson recounted for NPR in 2019).

The vanilla bean on my desk comes from the small Hawaiian town of Laie, on the North Shore of Oahu. It is longer and darker than the other vanilla beans in my closet, its scent is more narcotic with insistence. Saili Levi, born in Samoa and moved to Laie aged 7, started planting vines in his garden in 2018 after a friend and colleague from the local water company found one growing in the wild state. He now runs a farm, Laie Vanilla Company, full-time on larger land, with dark mesh panels hanging overhead to shade the drapery of the vines, and hires his three young daughters to watch over the plants. (His wife is a nurse.) Hawaii is the only place in the United States where vanilla is commercially harvested, with only a few farms currently dedicated to it, and Levi’s is the only one on Oahu.

It is difficult and uncertain work. For starters, even though the vanilla orchid – planifolia is the most widely grown species – is hermaphroditic (like most flowering plants), with both male and female parts, it cannot pollinate each other. So when botanists first attempted to transplant it outside of its native Mexico, away from its natural pollinators, it failed to bear fruit. Europeans had to make do with beans transported by boat across the Atlantic until in 1841, a 12-year-old child slave named Edmond, worked hard on a plantation on the island of Reunion (at the time French colony) in the Indian Ocean. , figured out how to extract vanilla beans from a barren vine. She had been taught to hand-pollinate separate plants; with planifolia he adapted this method to a single plant, gently lifting the flap between the male anther and the female stigma so that pollen from one could be thrown over the other, in what botanists call the marriage.

Hand pollination can only be done when a flower is blooming, which happens once a year and lasts only a few hours. Fortunately, each orchid can bear up to 20 flowers in a few months, although growers warn that it’s best not to try to pollinate them all, to encourage fewer but plumper beans. On the vine, they look like something between string beans and very thin green bananas in clusters. Once picked, they must be dried, which can take months, in a process that involves blanching them in hot water or placing them in the freezer to stop ripening; wrapped in wool or kept damp in a warm box to sweat so that the starches break down into the coveted vanillin; then dried in the sun or in a dehydrator, with constant supervision to ensure they do not become brittle, and left in a sealed container for the fragrance to deepen.

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