By: Lourdes Mederos
What happens if you mix a cacao bean with a vanilla bean produced from a specific Florida-grown vanilla cultivar? The outcome was a winning combination that resulted from the latest experiment cooked up by a University of Florida scientist and a Miami chocolatier.
That’s great news for bakers, chefs and home growers who wish to work with a Florida-grown vanilla. For the Sunshine State, it’s one step closer to opening the doors for a viable industry.
Alan Chambers, a tropical plant geneticist at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), wanted to mix chocolate and vanilla as he works on the next steps in his vanilla research. To do so, Chambers sought to work with a local business. He test-marketed a choice vanilla bean grown in a shade house at the Homestead UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC). In his search, he came across a Miami chocolatier who founded the city’s first chocolate factory.
For the experience, Chambers supplied Florida-grown vanilla extract and vanilla beans, and the chocolatier went to work and crafted a variety of bon bons with successful results. The chocolates were created into four bite-sized products and packaged as part of the Mother’s Day collection. The collection explained how the chocolate featured a locally-grown vanilla bean as its foundation. The batch sold out before the holiday arrived.
For Chambers, this marks a research milestone to determine if Florida-grown vanilla is a viable crop that will meet commercial and consumer needs and appeal. It is also a historic moment in that testing the product in its raw form in Miami with Carolina Quijano of Exquisito Chocolates makes for the best field test on a bean that serves to produce one of the most expensive spices for commercial and consumer use.
“The experiment was a success and a win-win in our next steps to identify a viable South Florida crop for commercial and home growers,” Chambers said. “Being able to use a cultivar with desirable traits that is virus-free and has a higher vanillin content than the worldwide average, makes this a desirable crop for South Florida.”
Crafting a winning combination with chocolate and vanilla
This makes the science that much sweeter for Chambers and Quijano.
“I was not aware that vanilla was grown here, but it turned out to be a perfect union of science and food because our goals are the same,” said Quijano. The chocolatier represents a growing group of farm-to-table businesses in South Florida that are committed to sustainably crafting a product. In this case, her factory produces bean-to-bar chocolates by hand and imports cacao beans from different international farms.
“We make our own chocolate here in little Havana; we don’t buy any chocolate,” she said. “We take the cacao beans we roast, then grind them using only sugar before we turn it into a product. We are committed to the sustainability of chocolate, and we view it as a winemaker would. We bring the cacao beans from each farm and never blend them. We simply craft the chocolate and make the product, honoring the farmer and land where the bean was sourced.”
This is exactly the field research Chambers and his lab team at UF/IFAS TREC were looking for as a next step.
How it all began
Chambers has been studying the viability of growing vanilla in South Florida as part of the UF/IFAS breeding program since 2015. He and his team have been identifying, collecting, breeding and testing more than 300 vanilla cultivars — all to find the one cultivar with the traits that will sustain a viable Florida-grown vanilla industry. If Chambers and his team succeed, they would help boost Florida’s economy and give local growers more hope for a viable vanilla product.
As a spice, vanilla is the second most expensive and is one of the world’s most popular flavors. Madagascar supplies more than 80% of the world’s vanilla, followed by Indonesia and Mexico. The United States is the biggest importer of vanilla beans from Madagascar and, once in the U.S., those beans are further processed into vanilla extract. Providing a locally grown vanilla bean in its rawest form lets the grower provide a product based on commercial and consumer need and appeal.
“Phase one of the research was to find a good cultivar that would serve as a benchmark. The next step in the science is to know how well it grows here,” said Chambers.
Late last year, Chambers’ work developed a tool to unlock the genetic traits that could pinpoint the vanilla variety that produces an abundance of beans, grows efficiently and sustainably, with consumer-approved taste. For the genomic study, Chambers tested various accessions from the TREC collection: Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla x tahitensis, Vanilla mexicana, and Vanilla pompona. Sequencing of these vanilla types resulted in a genome blueprint that will serve as the tool to creating the ideal cultivar.
Among the critical findings in the research, Chambers explained that while all commercial vanilla plants are vulnerable to a fungal pathogen, related species such as Vanilla pompona are resistant to the pathogen and could provide a genetic route to a disease-resistant Vanilla planifolia.
“We selected the best vanilla plant out of the entire collection,” said Chambers. “We know it grows well in Florida, it yields extra-long gourmet beans, and it is free from virus.”
The average of vanillin content in a traditional bean ranges from 1.5 to 3 percent. The vanillin content in the cultivar grown in the Chambers shade house is 3.5 percent which exceeds the industry standard of 2 percent.
For growers and homeowners who are interested in growing vanilla in Florida, check out the growing guide Vanilla cultivation in Southern Florida.
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