How to make Vanilla?
Vanilla is one of the most prized spices in the world, known for its delicate aroma and sweet flavor. Vanilla processing involves several carefully orchestrated steps to obtain the vanilla beans we all know. Here is an overview of the main steps in this process:
Vanilla drying in São Tomé
- Vanilla cultivation: Vanilla is mainly cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions, with us in São Tomé, latitude 0.06. Vanilla plants are typically climbing orchids that require a warm, humid environment to thrive. Growing vanilla requires careful care, including providing support for climbing plants and hand pollination of flowers.
- Flowering and pollination: Vanilla flowers are small yellow or green flowers that open in the morning and close in the afternoon. Each flower usually lasts one to two days. Natural vanilla pollination is rare, which is why it is done manually. Vanilla growers need to be careful and pollinate the flowers as soon as they open.
- Vanilla bean formation: If the flower is successfully pollinated, it begins to grow to form a vanilla bean. The pod is an elongated, fleshy capsule that grows from the ovary of the flower once pollinated. It takes several months to develop and goes through different phases of maturation.
- Harvesting the vanilla pods: The vanilla pods are harvested when their maturation is optimal. This usually happens when the pod reaches its maximum size and its color begins to turn yellow, a sign of senescence and the start of fermentation. Harvesting vanilla requires great precision, as the pods must be picked at a specific time to ensure their quality, if too late the pods open and are unusable.
- Blanching or Warming: After harvest, vanilla beans undergo a process called blanching. It involves briefly immersing them in boiling water to kill the enzymes, stop the maturation process and destroy the cell patterns. Blanching also destroys bacteria and prevents the formation of mold.
- Fermentation or steaming: Once blanched, the vanilla pods are placed in airtight boxes or wrapped in blankets for a period of fermentation at a controlled temperature, around 50°C. This can last around 24 hours depending on the protocols. Fermentation allows the pods to develop their characteristic aromas by converting the chemical compounds present in the raw vanilla.
- Drying and sorting: After fermentation, the vanilla pods are spread out in the sun or dried in dryers. They are exposed 5 to 6 hours a day, for 2 weeks it varies according to the weather. The passage to the sun finished, the vanilla spends 3 months to continue its drying, in the shade on wire mesh racks. This allows the pods to retain all their flexibility. During this 3-month period, the pods are sorted and handled to ensure their even drying.
We are currently in the final stage of transformation in the Vanhá Laboratory. The vanilla is being dried to obtain an optimal humidity of 36%.