Part 2: Ripening and harvesting the pods
Our first harvest season was carried out with very little practical information. The research I was able to gather at the time was pretty short on detail, geared mostly toward helping vanilla farmers improve their crop and determining the viability of vanilla as a cash crop. We needed to know things like “when are the pods ripe?” “what do we do with freshly harvested vanilla pods?” “how are the vanilla beans stored?” and other practical questions most vanilla farmers didn’t need explained.
Short of interning on a vanilla plantation, we would need to go on what little was available in the research, common sense and experiment. So what if a few beans got wasted, it was at this point just a hobby.
How Vanilla Pods Ripen
When the vanilla flower is pollinated, you can see the next day that the whole structure of the flower has changed. The “stem” (which is actually the ovary) of the flower lengthens and expands while the flower wilts and turns brown. If, on the other hand, pollination has failed, the whole thing, stem, flower and all, drops off of the raceme. During the pollination season, you know pretty well how many flowers have been successfully pollinated.
Over the next week or so, the fertilized ovary continues to grow rapidly until it reaches full size. At that point, the growth stops and very little seems to be going on for the next 9-10 months. All the action is inside, where the seeds are developing slowly.
Here on Kauai, the final stage of ripening begins in late February, with pods becoming ripe over a several-week period through April. At first, there is a general lightening of the color, then you begin to see the pod lighten at the tip. Within a few days, the tip begins to turn yellow. That is the earliest point at which we harvest our vanilla, but it’s not unusual for a ripening pod to escape the notice of the picker and continue.
As the pod ripens, the yellow area moves up the bean, and the tip begins to split in two. It is at this point that the fragrance becomes very noticeable. (It’s often said that the pods don’t smell like anything until they’re cured, but that’s only because they’re usually picked earlier. We like to let them ripen a bit more than that.) As the ripening continues, the split opens up, and the split part of the pod dries and turns dark brown.
Eventually, over a period of about a week, the split moves all the way up the pod and the pod turns completely dark brown. It is somewhat dry, supple like a dried fruit, with the seeds exposed in an oily resin that is highly fragrant. We call this a naturally cured bean, and we have experimented with pods cured this way to see how it compares to the hand-cured beans. I think that the hand curing methods originally mimicked the natural cure but in a more controlled way and at an earlier stage of ripening. The curing of vanilla beans was not an accidental discovery, but a logical improvement (from a human standpoint) on what happens naturally.
The pods come in a few at a time over a period of about two months. Every day, the vines are checked for pods ready to be picked. The pods are securely attached to the raceme, so they must be clipped with a sharp shear. The cut end exudes a clear sap that is sticky and irritant. The cut pods are collected in a box and brought in for the first stage of processing. That story is told in part 3.