The Luxury of Vanilla

The Luxury of Vanilla

The Luxury of Vanilla

The most exotic of spices

Life isn’t fair, is it? Vanilla adds such a luxurious flavour to baked goods, ice-cream, alcohol, chocolate, tea and more, and yet, somehow, the word ‘vanilla’ has become a synonym for ‘beige’, which itself is a synonym for plain or boring. But take a dried vanilla pod, gently scrape out the seeds and you will experience a scent and, ultimately, flavour like few others. It has the power to transport you to a memory, to remind you of the exotic or luxurious. Vanilla is fascinating because it is one of two edible products that comes from an orchid, the other being cardamom. There are three species of vanilla orchid that produce edible vanilla, the most highly regarded being Vanilla planifolia.

The vanilla orchid hails originally from the jungles of Mexico, where it grows into a vine that scrambles up to 30m high with the assistance of supporting trees. The vine is long-lived too, and some estimates are that a vanilla vine can live for hundreds of years if left undisturbed in the wild.

From Mexico, the vanilla orchid has been taken to Réunion Island, Indonesia, Madagascar and India, which all have the hot and humid conditions the plant needs to thrive. But what has not followed the plant is the tiny bee that evolved to pollinate the vanilla’s flowers. This means that all vanilla grown outside of Mexico has to be painstakingly hand- pollinated – a complex process! The pollinated flowers turn into the long, thin pods that reach about 20cm long. When the vanilla is finally ready for consumption it is marketed either as whole pods, as paste, powder or extract. It has a long shelf-life too, and high-quality pods can last for up to 8 years if stored in a glass bottle in a dark place. Because of the palaver associated with growing, pollinating and processing vanilla, the final product is an expensive one: top quality vanilla pods can cost in the region of R5000/kg, second only to saffron in the spice world! That’s why synthetic vanilla has come about, produced from wood pulp, amongst other things.

If you live in the correct climate, you could try your hand at growing your own, but it’s not easy to get hold of the plants. Dale Grobler, good friend of Grow to Eat, has just started growing vanilla so we’ll keep in touch with him to see how they fare. But let’s assume you tracked down a vine to grow: It’s an orchid, so you’ll need orchid soil (or a mix of potting soil and bark). Half fill a pot with the mix, place the orchid in the pot and cover the roots with the potting mix. Add a stake or lattice to support the plant, or place the pot at the base of a lattice. Vanilla needs high humidity and bright but indirect light, which is easy if you live somewhere like Durban. Otherwise you might need to place it in a greenhouse, a sunroom or indoors where you can regulate both the temperature and the humidity. To increase humidity, place the pot on a saucer of gravel and add water to it. Water the soil regularly, but allow the soil to almost dry out between waterings. Alternatively, water by misting the plant every day or on alternate days. Fertilise with a water-soluble fertiliser every 2 weeks in the growing months of spring and summer. If you do manage to get your plant to flower, well done. Your work isn’t over, though, and you will need to pollinate it by hand, using a toothpick to move pollen from the anther of the flower to the stigma of the flower, which will become a seed pod if you were successful.

Vanilla Bean Syrup

• 1 cup sugar

• 1 cup water

• 1 vanilla bean


1. Melt the sugar and water together in a saucepan on medium heat.

2. Split the vanilla bean open lengthways and scoop out the seeds. 

3. Add the seeds and the whole pod to the pan and stir until the sugar has dissolved. 

4. Pout into a sterilised glass jar and leave to cool completely before storing.


Combine two shots of cold brew espresso with 1 teaspoon of vanilla syrup and stir to combine. Fill the glass with milk and add a few ice blocks to serve.

The Gardener