There is nothing plain about vanilla! Although commonly used, it is one of the most rare and exotic ingredients on the planet. Did you know that it is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron? That’s why 98% of vanilla used for flavouring and fragrance is synthetic but not at Gelateria Gondola – we only use the real thing to make the best gelato in Sydney.
Vanilla is actually the fruit of an orchid. It is the only edible orchid in the entire orchid family. It is a tropical variety native to the Americas where it originally grew wild from Tampico in Mexico down to the northeastern tip of South America on one side, and down to Ecuador on the other side. It was also endemic throughout the Caribbean.
Although originally used as a fragrance, it’s thought to have first been cultivated for its flavour in Mexico in the 1500s. From there, it quickly spread around the globe and is now most commonly grown in Madagascar where approximately 75% of the world’s vanilla crops are produced today. It is also grown in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Uganda, Kenya, China, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands.
Despite the geographic sprawl of the vanilla orchid, the only bee that can pollinate it naturally, the melipona bee, can only be found in certain parts of Central America. This means that human intervention is needed to pollinate the orchid elsewhere using a long wooden needle. To make things more difficult, the flower that produces the vanilla pod only lasts one day. All of this adds up to vanilla being the world’s most labour-intensive agricultural crop.
When fully grown, vanilla pods look very similar to green beans. It takes nine months on the vine for them to ripen before harvesting. They must then be cured and dried until they are only 20% of their original size in order to fully develop the flavour and fragrance for which they are so highly sought.
There is currently a worldwide shortage of vanilla and places that grow it face increasing incidents of ‘vanilla rustling’ where valuable crops are stolen and on sold. In an attempt to combat this, growers often scar the green bean pods with a unique brand that stays on the fruit throughout the entire curing and drying process so that they can be identified down the line.
All of these factors have driven the price up further still and given rise to increasing dependence on imitation vanilla, especially in the dairy industry. The next time you get a scoop of vanilla gelato, ask if it’s made with real vanilla. At Gelateria Gondola we use the finest Madagascan vanilla when available, and only occasionally supplement it with the Tahitian variety when it’s not, but we never use imitation vanilla. Next time you stop by, try a scoop and taste the difference.