A Little Vanilla With Your Vanillin?
by the Botanically Inclined Nerd Girl, Marla
I finally decided to splurge and buy a small bottle of real vanilla absolute from India. Like most Americans, I grew up with vanillin, the synthetic version of a compound that exists in actual vanilla, and its cousins, ethyl vanillin and ethyl maltol. I didn't realize that actual vanilla pods have hundreds of aromatic compounds in addition to vanillin.
The waxy absolute surprised me with its complicated, rich, woody scent. It isn't particularly sweet, though vanillin is obviously present. Papery/woody notes similar to sandalwood and amyris, and a very subtle peppery undertone, create a sophisticated, almost ready-to-wear perfume. In fact, vanilla bean absolute could easily be worn on its own, and with hundreds of components, it really is an actual perfume already.
To make my acquaintance with vanilla even more complete, I was shown vanilla orchid vines at the American Orchid Society HQ in Florida. The lush, fleshy vines wound themselves all around the ceiling of the greenhouse, and several green pods, each about 8 inches long, were ripening. The botanist-in-residence explained that the orchids bloom for only 24 hours, and during that time, they must be hand-pollinated. Even then, pods may not grow from the flowers. The pods must be protected while they ripen, then dry out to the brown, hard things we see in gourmet shops. I had no idea it was so labor-intensive, and that so much had gone into my tiny bottle of absolute. It feels quite precious to me now.
Spaniards brought vanilla orchids back to Europe, along with chocolate, in the early 1500s (smart moves, those!), and Thomas Jefferson brought vanilla beans home to the States in 1789 after his ambassadorship to France. To this day, the French and Americans are the nuttiest people on the planet for vanilla, and consume far more than any other groups.
Vanillin was initially extracted from the seed pods of the orchid Vanilla planifolia, but demand far outstripped supply, and several synthetic processes were pioneered, as the French and Americans were growing desperate. Today most vanillin is made from lignin, a byproduct of the paper pulp industry. Ironically, it does not have even a whiff of cardboard, unlike the actual vanilla bean, which does. A glitch in the Matrix, obviously.
What is your favorite vanilla perfume, and do you know if it’s vanilla, or vanillin, or both??