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Mexican Vanilla Extract: Pure or Immitation?

Vanilla beans cultivated around the world originally all came from Mexico.  When Cortés came to conquer Mexico in 1519, he sent samples of the vanilla orchid back to Spain where they eventually spread to other growing areas around the world including Madagascar, Indonesia, Reunion (at the time called “Il de Bourbon”),  Tonga, Costa Rica, and Papua New Guinea. There are several distinct species of the vanilla orchid, the most common being Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla tahitiensis (a Mexican hybrid), and Vanilla pompona .

Vanilla extract is usually marketed as “Bourbon vanilla”, most of which is grown in Indonesia and Madagascar. It comes from the same species (Vanilla planiolia) grown in Mexico which is called “Mexican vanilla,” purely a marketing designation. The difference between the two is mostly in the processing of the Vanilla beans after harvesting. Some of the vanilla extracts sold in Mexico are stretched with tonka bean extract, which has a similar taste and aroma to vanilla but contains coumarin which can be toxic to the liver and is banned as a food additive by the US Food & Drug Administration since the 1950’s. Most reputable companies avoid this additive. Other countries have less strict regulations.

vanilla beans, shop, for sale, best, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours, vanilla shop, store, purchase

Pure Vanilla Extract is a complex flavor, comprised of approximately 300 individual flavor components all working together to create it’s rich flavor and bouquet. To produce premium pure vanilla extracts it always begins with the beans. You cannot produce high quality extracts with inferior quality beans!  It can be found in several strengths called fold:  single (1X) and double (2X) are common for the baking industry.  There is even a 60X strength available only to industrial users where excessive liquid is a problem.

Pure Mexican Vanilla has at least a 35% alcohol content and higher natural vanillin concentration. It is therefore best utilized in those items which require high heat such as baking. This allows much of the alcohol to cook out.  The balance is water.  The color is light brown from the cured beans.  Although expensive, this is the BEST vanilla you can buy in Mexico

Traditional Mexican Vanilla has 10% alcohol (90% water) and less than 1% of natural vanillin. The vanillin helps hold the flavor. Also the less alcohol makes the vanilla much more versatile and can be used for anything that calls for vanilla such as French toast, smoothies, homemade ice cream, whip cream, cookies, cakes, oatmeal, etc.

Artificial Vanilla Extract    In the 1880s the first synthetic vanillas came from Germany, providing a cheaper alternative to natural vanilla.  Soon it was discovered that synthetic vanillin could be made from the waste water of paper pulp and coal tar processing. Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean began selling cheap synthetic vanillas hoping to cash in on Mexico’s vanilla connection.

 LABELING

There are numerous words used to label “vanilla” sold in stores today.  BEWARE!  The cheap product in the big bottle is not vanilla at all.  It is imitation vanilla with unknown ingredients.  Make sure the brown bottle doesn’t contain clear “vanilla” liquid.

Natural and Artificial Vanillas are a blend of natural vanilla fortified with artificial vanillin, flavors and other “ingredients.”

Clear vanilla is artificial vanillin. It’s often called “crystal vanilla.”

Dark and murky is synthetic vanillin, most likely ethyl vanillin derived from coal tar. It may also be dark because it contains red dye or caramel (carmelo) coloring.

vanilla flower, orchid, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours

PRODUCTION PROCESS

Another clue to finding good quality vanilla extract is the price.  Vanilla is the second most expensive “flavoring” after saffron.  This is due mainly to the labor-intensive growing and curing processes.

Quality vanilla beans come when the vine is grown on rich soil using good farm practices (not crowding the vines, water/moist environment and the right shade/sun).  The flower that produces the bean only appears for one day and in most countries has to be hand-pollinated. The most important part of the process is WHEN to cut the bean from the vine. This has to be done bean by bean when yellow at the tip indicating a fully matured bean with the highest concentration (2%+) of vanillin inside.

First, the pods are heated (the “Bourbon Process”) to stop growth, to prevent sugar from turning to starch and to break down the cell walls. The “Mexican Process” is to place the beans in the hot sun, wrapping them in a blanket overnight to keep them warm.  This process of exposure to daily sun then wrapping in cloth is repeated for up to six weeks. This stage develops vanillin, the main flavor component.

The next step is the drying/curing process. If the bean has been cut when yellow at the tip, the process of curing will be shorter. Additionally, there will be very little loss due to mold which occurs more often when the beans are cut “green” instead of yellow at the tip. Drying and curing go together.

Then comes maturation in boxes which straightens the pods to further enhance the flavor. It is in this last stage that Mexican vanilla differs most significantly–whereas vanilla from Madagascar may cure for about 5 weeks, Mexican vanilla will cure for up to nine months.  Beans are graded for quality and are then ready for the extraction phase.

The cured beans are ground and then exposed to heat and pressure to extract the vanilla into an alcohol solution.  Some companies are experimenting with a cold extraction process that they claim preserves the nutrients and rich flavors better than using heat.  At this point, the extracted liquid is ready for bottling.

Note:  Gracias to T.J. Hartung, Puerto Vallarta orchid specialist, for his editorial help.

 

Oysters!! And Tehuamixtle, Mexico

If you love oysters like I do then you must visit Tehua as the locals call it. Two hours south of Puerto Vallarta by car, this very small beach community, population less than 100, raises and serves up the largest and most delicious oysters I have ever eaten…and I have eaten many on my worldly travels. These are as large as your fist, juicy and succulent.  I ate 6 raw “en sus conchas” or translated “on their shells” or what we northerners call “on the half shell.”  That and a salad was all I needed…heaven. My local friend Rafa had the freshly-made seafood soup which included a half a lobster just freshly caught.

Tehuamixtle oyster lunch, huge, tasty, raw, on the half shell, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

As we awaited our lunch, fishing boats began to arrive with sacks of 50 kilo freshly-harvested oysters.  Carried ashore to scales for weighing and then delivery to the beach restaurants or, in some cases, to Puerto Vallarta to the north, these were the freshest ever served to me…and well worth the wait!

Tehua also boasts other fresh fish, lobsters, and mussels in addition to the oysters.  Being a hot September day, there weren’t many in town…we were the only ones at the beachfront restaurant, tables with checkered cloths in the sand barely 20 feet from the water.  Come winter and the high season tourists, the town swells with many looking for tranquility, fresh seafood, and a few days from the city.  Next to Mayto, another beach community, Tehua access has improved as much of the old dirt road from El Tuito to the ocean has been paved…all except the bone-jarring middle 30 kilometers which have yet to be finished.

Seafood stew, fresh, lobster, local eating, man, Mexican, Tehuamixtle, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

I drove from Vallarta to El Tuito to Tehuamixtle in a little more than 2 hours.  It’s an all day venture, especially if you stop in El Tuito for breakfast or dinner.  Next time I will try one of the small hotels for a more relaxing over-night stay.

Do You Have a Sweet Tooth?

Is sugar really that bad for us?  Despite the warnings of dentists and doctors, sweets of all kinds are available to you in Vallarta.  Every child seems to be sucking on some questionable sugary thing of bright color and doubtful nourishment.  Local family-owned Azteca candy and nut shops as well as “pastelerias” offer more variety than you will have seen for some time.  One of my favorites is the “coco con leche” rolls made with sweet coconut and milk.  Or try the hot nuts cooked with cane sugar until they are caramelized in a coating of delight. My friend Jesus, who calls himself “Willie Wonka,” runs the candy shop (dulceria) where we stop to browse on my El Centro Walking Tour, with free samples all around!

Mexican candy, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

If you want to feel less guilty, Xocodiva Chocolates in Southside offer some sugar-free gourmet dark chocolates to die for.  And Pie in the Sky has decadent cakes and goodies for all occasions. Several coffee shops and cafes also carry sweet delights to accompany your local Mexican coffee. Come take a guided walking tour with us and we will show you where to satisfy your sweet tooth.