Part 3 of 7
Vanilla originated from Mexico and Central America, where there is an insect that is a natural pollinator in that region. In Madagascar, which produces about 75% to 80% of the world’s vanilla, there are no natural pollinators for the vanilla flower. This is true for other producers in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Uganda. Every orchid flower needs to be hand pollinated precisely by the grower so that flower produces one vanilla bean.
“It’s a very intricate procedure,” explains Nathaniel Delafield, co-founder of LAFAZA. “Years ago, as the story goes, a young plantation worker figured out you could take an orange thorn and use it as part of the tools to lift up the small flap in the flower and precisely squeeze that flower component together to produce the pollination result you want.”
“It takes just the right technique, just the right pressure on your fingers. Too hard or too soft, that vanilla bean won’t grow to the right length or won’t grow at all. Farmers will go out and pollinate hundreds, if not thousands of flowers every day during the flowering season. Then the vanilla bean grows on the vine for another 6 to 9 months until it reaches full maturity.
The timing is critical too. The flowers come out for only 24 hours; they are viable for pollination for just one day. Farmers and their families walk their fields diligently hand pollinating the flowers, not wanting to miss even one.
Our next installment will look at the complex flavor profile of vanilla.