Origin and History
Vanilla is a flavoring substance derived from the Mexican species, flat-leaved vanilla, otherwise known as V. Planifolia. This pod –found in the vine of the Vanilla plant, a sort of orchid- was originally cultivated by the Aztecs to be used as a flavoring ingredient in combination with chocolate and other types of foods.
Introduced in Europe in the 16th century, this pod however was not successfully grown there until the mid 19th century when the issue of effective pollination of the flower was eventually solved. Since then, vanilla has been cultivated in different areas around the world.
Cultivation v. Production: A Matter of Profit
There are three main types of vanilla pods that are grown these days. Even though the culinary use is still the most popular and most widely-developed, there is a species that is grown mainly for its use in aromatherapy.
The Vanilla Planifolia (syn, V. fragrans), cultivated on Madagascar and other tropical areas along the Indian Ocean, is perhaps the most popular sub species cultivated these days. However, because of its difficulty in cultivation, natural vanilla extract is very rare, thus highly expensive. Because of its low profitability, most production of natural vanilla pods was dropped and replaced by the development of a synthetic variant in the 20th century.
Vanilla bourbon on the other hand, offers a rich scent which is highly valued for several uses. The natural extract deriving from this variety is extremely slow to produce as it is extracted during the process of drying from each individual pod.
Tahitian Vanilla is the rarest and most expensive variant because its scent is the richest as far as perfumery use is concerned. In recent years, a synthetic alternative of this variety has been developed with outstanding results.
In addition, in its natural habitat, the vanilla plant is pollinated by various species of birds and insects. In other places however, pollination must be done manually.
Consequently, artificial vanilla extract, also known as vanillin, has become much more popular in both the food and the perfume industry.
Vanilla used in the Perfume Industry
The substance known as French vanilla is not a natural variant of the vanilla plant, but a sort of quality label of the taste and scent of the real vanilla. The main difference is that this ingredient has been potentiated to be more intensive than the natural vanilla extract or the synthetic one used for foods.
Almost universally recognized, the flavor and scent of the vanilla extract is made of several components, including the synthetic vanillin and heliotropine extract.
Corresponding to the oriental family of scents, vanilla in the perfuming industry is often associated with a cozy, sweet and comforting feeling that stems from the instant association with culinary homemade specialties.
Despite being a classic, vanilla scents are part of an ever-growing market that includes diverse combinations with other substances, such as amber or musk. In recent years there has been a growing trend to produce more earthly vanilla scents –combined with sandalwood- for colder seasons and a more floral fragrance –combined with jasmine- for spring and summer.