Vanilla seduces our hearts and noses for almost five centuries, and remains widely loved and used today. Its warm notes bring us back to old memories, but it never fails to surprise enthusiasts and perfumers. Both sweet, spicy or sensual, vanilla knows how to sublimate our favorite fragrances. Together, let’s understand the secrets of this mythical ingredient, one of the most gourmand of perfumery…
An Aztec secret
In 1519 the explorer Fernando Cortez landed on the Mexican coast of Veracruz. Cortez and his men were greeted by the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan City with a welcome beverage. Made of chocolate and vanilla, the Tchocolatl immediately seduces the navigator who decides to bring this extraordinary new aroma in the form of vanilla pod to his king Charles V. But the Aztecs were careful not to reveal all the secrets of the culture of their precious orchid… French botanists, despite all their attempts, failed to obtain the precious vanilla beans in their overseas territories. Mexico has thus maintained vanilla production monopoly for nearly two centuries.
Vanilla finally arrives in the island of Madagascar in the holds of French colonists boats in the seventeenth century and sets up on La Réunion in the early nineteenth century. It then takes the name of “Bourbon vanilla”, the name of the island before the French Revolution.
A wild orchid
Vanilla, considered as a spice, is the fruit of an orchid from the Amazon: Vanilla Planifolia. This plant grows in tropical forests where fertile soil and humidity allow it to grow in total peace and quiet. Vanilla Planifolia is the only orchid to produce a fruit: the vanilla pod. This orchid, which looks like a greenish daffodil, grows in the form of a creeper by clinging to a tree as its stake.
But vanilla is a complex plant that can not be tamed easily! To obtain the pods that we know, the plant must be pollinated. If this task is naturally handled in the Amazon by the Melipona bee, it is up to the Man to take care of it in the Indian Ocean. Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave, is at the origin of the discovery of the hand-pollinating method.
Thanks to this incredible discovery, a new technique is born. Using a splinter of bamboo, pollen is collected and put in contact with the pistil. This delicate process can only be done in the morning, when the vanilla flower blooms. Women carrying out this manipulation are poetically called “matchmakers”.
Once the vanilla flower pollinated, it is necessary to wait between 10 and 18 months before the stem that supports the flower turns into a pod. When it reaches maturity, even if it is still green, the pod is picked, blanched and fermented y stewing. Pods then sunbathe for fifteen days. Far from being over, the process continues and pods are maintained in blankets for the same period and then dried in the open air to give them their typical brown color.
The length and the delicacy of all these steps make vanilla one of the most expensive spices in the world.
The extraction techniques of vanilla
Such a long process… to see the pods be grinded at the end! But a necessary evil to extract this so distinctive aroma. Various methods then allow to separate the pod from its perfume, present in vanilla thanks to a powerful odoriferous molecule that is one of the natural components of the pod: the vanillin. However, the pod contains vanillin in very small amounts since there are only 25 grams of vanillin for 1 kilo of pods.
The first to extract vanillin was the chemist Théodore Nicolas Golby by macerating pods in an alcohol at 85 °C. This is how appeared the technique of vanilla dyeing, consisting in putting split or cut pods into alcohol to macerate them for about a month. The aromatic components of the vanilla migrate into the alcoholic solution, and once alcohol is evaporated, we obtained a thick and sticky liquid very concentrated in perfume: the oleoresin. This technique is now almost no longer used because it is long and unprofitable.
Perfumers can also use the technique of extraction with volatile solvents to obtain vanilla resinoid which, once purified, will give vanilla absolute. This method of manufacture is still popular today.
Another technique, more modern and more expensive, can be used to extract vanillin from the pod: the supercritical CO2 extraction. Placed at a high pressure level, the gas will act as a solvent to take the odoriferous molecules out of the pod. The CO2 is then recovered by depressurization to keep only odorous compounds.
Synthesis as an alternative
As we have seen, vanilla is an extremely expensive spice because of the complexity of its culture. Chemists and perfumers have joined their forces to recreate vanillin using synthetic materials. This synthesis can be carried out using different chemical substances as guaiacol, lignin or curcumin. And it is interesting to note that synthetic vanillin is very similar to its natural odour!
During this research, a new kind of aromatic molecule, this time artificial, appeared: ethyl vanillin. Its aromatic power is 2 to 4 times more intense than vanillin! This molecule came up for the first time in the world of perfumery in 1921, when Guerlain added it to its mythical Jicky.
Vanilla as a natural raw material is therefore a prestige product used in luxury perfumery nowadays. Vanillin and ethyl vanillin are widely appreciated by perfumers. Synthesis thus makes it possible to sublimate fragrances with vanilla notes, and to use vanilla as a fixer for more volatile notes.
In perfumery, vanilla goes along with…
Vanilla has a special place in perfumers’ nose and in the formulas of many fragrances. And for a good reason, as it fits perfectly to countless notes to reveal an unexpected facet. It goes along regularly with other spices to reveal a warm and sensual perfume. This is why we can find it in most of oriental fragrances. Associated with gourmand notes of caramel, cakes or liquorice, vanilla is sweet and smooth. This cult ingredient also matches well with the olfactory family of woody perfumes to create deep juices rich in velvet notes. Finally, with a floral or citrus heart, vanilla will take you in a cool wake to wear in any season.
Our Carrément Belle vanille
At Carrément Belle, we are still big children. Like Peter Pan and his Neverland, our eau de parfum vanille allows us to stay in childhood and remember gourmand memories of a vanilla pastry in a happy kitchen. Vanille is a regressive and voluptuous fragrance, almost maternal thanks to its comforting warmth. A warm note also inspired by the blazing sun of the South of France where our workshop is settled.
Created in the late 80’s, our vanille highlights the absolute of vanilla from Madagascar. This prestigious natural raw material is soberly surrounded by almond, caramel, coumarin but also tobacco to offer a resolutely gourmand and spicy perfume. A little pleasure to spray all year, because with vanille, greed is not a bad thing…
Did you know that vanilla was such a complex ingredient to use in perfumery? Are you addicted to our fragrance vanille or gourmand scents?