Over the years, Venui Vanilla has perfected a cultivation system, as well as a processing and curing methodology, which represent the ultimate in vanilla production. Venui Vanilla has achieved such excellence not simply in terms of its final product quality, but also by leading the way as a model producers’ organization and through its commitment to equitable trade.
In particular, Venui Vanilla has developed a slow-curing process that, although sophisticated in its sequence, is tailor-made for limited quantities of raw material and can easily be adopted by small farmers. In developing the process, Venui Vanilla carried out an extensive number of tests to ensure a final product with a high content of vanillin.
The processing and curing methodology devised enables Venui Vanilla to offer a range of vanilla products besides its high-quality vanilla capsules, including an alcohol-based essence, a very fine powder and, through a slow-maceration process, based on the rediscovery of ancient recipes, a sugar-based extract in the form of paste.
Vanilla (V. fragrans) is indigenous of Mesoamerica: mainly south-eastern Mexico, Guatemala and other parts of Central America.
Around the sixteenth century the Totonac people living on the east coast of Mexico (the Vera Cruz region) harvested the beans from the vanilla orchid growing wild on the humid coastline. They had been doing so for centuries.
When the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs, they soon developed a taste for the newly discovered beans used as a sweetener for a cocoa drink, and forced the Totonacs to pay tribute by sending vanilla to the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. The vanilla ‘discovered’ by the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez (1518) was most probably part of one of the Totonac tributes.
Vanilla then began its long and slow journey around the world, first to the court in Madrid (early 1500s), where for a number of decades it was used as a flavoring for a cocoa drink exclu¬sively for the King and the nobility.
However, by the end of the sixteenth century, the French and the English were able to obtain beans on a regu¬lar basis, and by 1602 Hugh Morgan (Queen Elizabeth I’s apothecary) suggested the use of vanilla as a flavoring in its own right. At this time Mexico was the only supplier of vanilla beans, and remained so until about 1860.
Meanwhile throughout the sixteenth and sev¬enteenth centuries there was high demand for the exotic vanilla plant, particularly in Paris and London. During this period (probably before 1730) vanilla cuttings were smuggled into the French and British capitals, where they were kept in botanical gardens like the famous Charles Greville collection at Paddington (circa 1807) who subsequently supplied cuttings to the Antwerp botanical garden.
Compelled by the increasing demand for vanilla both entrepreneurs and plant collectors attempt¬ed to grow the plants from cuttings in recently colonized countries with similar tropical cli¬matic conditions to vanilla’s place of origin. In 1819 two plants were sent from Antwerp to Java, where one plant survived and bore flowers – but no fruit. Vanilla cuttings were also shipped by French entrepreneurs to the Reunion and Mauritius islands and to Martinique and Gua¬dalupe in the French Antilles in 1839. While the plantations in these countries began to develop they did not produce sufficient crops.
Finally, in 1842 Edmond Albius, a 12 year old slave in Reunion Island, managed to hand pollinate vanilla for the first time. This was the beginning of the commercial success of vanilla. With the pollination technique perfected vanilla cultivation was reintroduced in Java (Indonesia) in 1846, and from there it travelled to Manila (Philippines). In 1848 a Mr. Hamelin brought some plants from the Philippines to Tahiti. By the end of the nineteenth century the vanil¬la plants had reached a large number of coun¬tries including Seychelles (1866), Comoros and Madagascar (1893) and Uganda (via Ceylon) in 1912. In 1898 Reunion, Madagascar and Comoros produced a combined total of 200 tonnes of cured vanilla.
Vanilla is an orchid, a member of the largest family of flowering plants in the world that includes about 150 varieties, although only two types, Vanilla tahitensis and Vanilla fragrans, are used commercially. Vanilla is the seedpod of either Vanilla Tahitensis or Vanilla fragrans (also known as Vanilla planifolia), a climbing vine, which is characterized by linear fleshy leaves, individually attached at nodes along the stem in alternate directions. Aerial roots are produced from each node, which cling to the surface of a training stake, usually a post or a tree.
Vanilla is not particularly demanding in terms of soil conditions. It prefers slightly acid, well-drained, friable soils, but with reasonable water retention capacity. The roots of the vanilla plant do not grow into the ground, but they need a ‘mulch’ to provide shade, nourishment and moisture. The ideal mulch for vanilla is a dry, inert compost, such as coconut husks, coconut stumps, dry leaves and grass, rotten decaying timber, aged cocoa shells and other organic matter.
Vanilla flourishes in partial shade, but its branches require light and air in order to produce flowers and fruit. The yellow-green flowers develop, in spikes of 15 to 20 or more, from the leaf axil.
Self-pollination is practically impossible and some form of external input is almost always required, eg a large arthropod or hummingbird. As a consequence, human intervention is necessary in specialized plantations to ensure a timely and appropriate insemination of the flowers.
After insemination, the capsules take about 9 months to reach ripeness. After cropping, the complete curing cycle of the capsules takes about 120 days.