Cultivation: The Long Version
Vanilla cultivation usually begins with the planting of host trees, often legumes such as poro trees, which in addition to providing the vanilla plants with nitrogen (legumes replenish the nitrogen in the soil), will support the vines and shield the plants from direct sun. The vanilla plant is a vine that wraps around the host tree (or wooden posts, which are also sometimes used). If left untended, the vines will climb out of reach of the growers (up to 50 or 60 feet), so they must be regularly pruned and trained to keep them manageable.
It is three full years after planting until the vanilla is ready to bear fruit. In most cases, the orchid flowers on the vine must be pollinated by hand. Without pollination, no beans are produced by the plant. (Vanilla originated in Mexico where the flowers were pollinated by the tiny, stingless, Melipone bee. For years, vanilla vines were planted in other countries, but with no insects to pollinate them, no beans developed. When the method of artificial pollination of the flowers was discovered in 1836, Mexico lost its monopoly on vanilla bean production.)
Hand pollination is a pain-staking job. Each individual flower must be held with one hand while a small pointed stick is used to pry it open to reach the pollen. The pollen on the tip of the stick is brushed across the stigma to fertilize that flower. Each flower lasts less than a day, so the pollinators must go through the vines daily throughout the two-month blooming period. Throughout the course of the day, they will hand-pollinate between 1,000 and 2,000 orchid flowers.
Seven to eight months after pollination, when the tip has turned slightly yellow, but the majority of the bean is still green, the vanilla is ready to be harvested--another labor-intensive hand process. (The beans must be picked before they are fully ripe, or they will split and their market value will depreciate.)
It takes another four to six months to properly cure the vanilla beans, a process that is crucial to their quality. The first step is to plunge the beans in hot water, and then spread them onto mats to dry in the hot sun. Each night, they are wrapped in the mats and stored in drums in a warehouse, where they "sweat."
During several weeks of this "sun and sweat" curing process, the beans turn their familiar brown color, and also begin to release their aromatic properties. Next, the beans are moved to mesh racks to dry for another two weeks, after which they are stored in drums for at least three more months to "condition" and fully release their flavor and scent.
In the final step, the vanilla beans are sorted and graded according to quality--which takes into account factors such as length, moisture, luster, flexibility, aroma, and color--then tied in bundles and packaged in airtight containers for sale and shipment. Five pounds of vanilla beans are harvested to produce one pound of marketable beans.
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