Vanilla from field to market: patience & precision

Vanilla is the only edible orchid in the world. It grows as a vine, climbing up an existing tree, pole, or other support. Outside Mexico, where it originally comes from, vanilla has to be hand-pollinated. This is a very delicate operation as the vanilla flower must be pollinated within 12 hours of opening, otherwise, the blossom wilts and falls and no vanilla bean can grow. Also, only 5 to 6 flowers per bunch must be pollinated to get good quality vanilla.

Green vanilla after harvest.

Cured vanilla, after a 6-month process.

Once green vanilla beans have been harvested, they undergo a curing process, to become brown pods sold on markets. Vanilla beans are sorted and graded, cleaned, immersed in hot water and dried to reveal their aroma. About 6 months are required for these different steps. Around 6-7 kilos of green vanilla are needed to get 1 kilo of cured vanilla. The quality of vanilla depends on the quality and maturity of green beans and the precision and rigor of the curing process.

Vanilla is therefore a very labor-intensive crop, making it the second most expensive spice after saffron.

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Photos: Mika Andrianoelison; Unclesam.