Become a Fan
Just Plain Vanilla -- Not!
By Angela T Pitt
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Rated "G" by the Author.
An article about vanilla.
"Vanilla: the cured fruit of a climbing
orchid vine, most commonly used to flavor desserts, pastries, confectionery, and drinks. Sold as dried
pods, vanilla extract, or as vanilla
sugar." -The Gourmet Atlas- Macmillan
That is a brief and generic view of vanilla, and though the statement is
quite true , vanilla is so much more. In the description of vanilla were common
uses for it, but there is nothing common
about it. How can an elixir produced
from an exotic and sultry orchid be
considered common and plain?
Sensuously subtle and sublime, vanilla is the workhorse of the aforementioned
dessert, pastry and beverage worlds.
Always playing second fiddle to chocolate, it is highly underrated,
possibly because of its unfortunate
reputation of being "just plain" in
chocolate's glaring limelight. In a sense, the two ingredients "grew up"
together, given their similar geographic
origins and long histories.
Their parallel introductions to the world came by way of Mexico and vanilla,
by rights, should share in equal adoration as chocolate. The Maya were the first people to treasure vanilla and
harvested it initially in what is known as Veracruz, located on the eastern coast, near the Yucatan Peninsula.
Montezuma was credited with vanilla's
discovery - by way of the drink
chocolatl, meaning bitter water. It was
the ancient world's version of hot
chocolate. The emperor needed vanilla,
and other flavors to mellow chocolate's
Montezuma and the Aztecs gained control
of what we know as Mexico in the 15th
century and thus inherited vanilla and
chocolate. Montezuma promptly forced the Maya and others to pay the Aztecs in taxes of vanilla and cacao beans. It
is about this time Cortez entered the
picture and he thought the beans were some valuable treasure; like the gold he was sent from Spain in search of.
Of course, he killed Montezuma and the
Aztecs for the presumed treasure. He may have been confused with the term
"theobroma," which is what the ancients
called chocolate. It translates to "food from the gods." To Cortez though, all it amounted to was a hill of
beans. He took his "treasure" back to
Spain nonetheless; it was better than
Through Cortez, vanilla journeyed to
Spain and eventually, Europe. The English then got a whiff of vanilla's
alluring scent and had to have it. A
botanist employed by Elizabeth I isolated vanilla as a flavor all by itself. Not to be out done, the French
went as far as cultivating vanilla on its colonized islands. One island, in
particular, Reunion, is where the vanilla orchid was first pollinated successfully. The islands of Reunion,
Madagascar, and Comoros are known as the Bourbon Islands, located in the
Indian Ocean. These islands were all
colonized by France and are still major
producers of vanilla today, with
Madagascar as the leader. Bourbon vanilla gets its name from the islands
from it is cultivated, not from the
How did vanilla arrive in America? By way of our very own renaissance man,
Thomas Jefferson, who was the United
States' ambassador to France in the 18th century. He brokered the deal that
netted us the Louisiana Purchase and
while he was at it, he sampled some of France's sweets flavored with vanilla
and became fascinated. He returned to
America with the deed to the land that
now includes the state of Louisiana,
fifty vanilla beans, and a recipe for
vanilla ice cream. The latter can be found among his papers in the Library
of Congress, written in the same hand that scrolled the Declaration of
Vanilla reached the mainstream for us as early as the 18th century (which is
late by its standards, given its long
history.) Our introduction to vanilla
came via Mr. Jefferson's plain vanilla
ice cream recipe. Today, vanilla is the
number one selling flavor ice cream.
Perhaps that is where it's lackluster
reputation has its roots. It certainly
does not come from its lush history.
So, vanilla is the best selling flavor
ice cream, where lies the fascination?
The answer to the paradox can be found in the mystery of vanilla itself and that hardly makes it plain.
Today, approximately 2500 tons of vanilla beans reach the world's markets
each year and it's as valuable a
commodity as it was in Montezuma's time.
It breeds violence in the same manner
also. The delevoping countries that
produce it desperately need the revenue
that vanilla export brings in. Madagascar's crops are protected from
the time of cultivation to market and
are even branded.
The United States leads the world in
vanilla consumptuion, with Coca Cola
as its biggest buyer. In 1985, when the company switched from its classic Coke
formula to the "new" Coke, Madagascar's
economy crashed because the demand for
vanilla was not as high. Apparently there was not a demand the Coke's new
version either so the company went back to the original formula and Madagascar's fortunes were reversed. As
Madagascar leads in the production of
vanilla, other countries grow it also.
In addition to the Bourbon Islands,
Tahiti, Indonesia, Tongo, Uganda and
India are emerging as vanilla-producing
contenders. Hawaii is stepping up as a
supplier in the wake of the sugar-market crash.
Since vanilla is grown in what are considered developing countries, it is
prone to be affected by the economic and ecologic upheavals that may happen at any given time. Think about the Equator and the countries that cling to
its tropical exposure - that is vanilla's preffered growing region, where big storms brew and mighty winds
blow. As crops are at risk, the price will be affected as well, making vanilla
on the most expensive ingredients on the
market, running close to saffron.
Another reason why vanilla is so expensive is that, like saffron, it's
processed mostly by hand, from pollenization to shipping. Here is a short version of the vanilla process:
pollenization by hand as there are no longer any native bees to do the job,
harvesting the immature green pods that can reach up to 7" long, fermenting those pods and drying them in the sun.
They are then wrapped in cloth, usually
burlap and allowed to age. It is during
this maturation stage that vanilla develops it unique characteristics. Each
type of vanilla, whether it be Mexican,
Bourbon, Tahitian, or even Hawiian, will
have its very own signature quality.
Throughout its history, vanilla has been
known for its medicinal properties. The
Coca Cola Company used it as part of a
curative for for upset stomachs when it
first came on the market with what we now drink for refreshment. Coca Cola and
vanilla have had a long relationship.
Vanilla has been found to calm jittery
patients about to undergo surgery. They
connect with its homey, comforting
scent. it's in everything from food and
drink to candles and perfume. It was even worn as necklace by the native
Mexicans who treasured it so very long ago. It is even said to be an aphrodisiac. Montezuma allegedly drank his vanilla-laced "chocolatl" by golden cupfuls, at least 50 a day. He had a harem of women to satisfy, after all.
Natural vanilla is certainly addictive and mysterious, but plain? Hardly.
Manufactured vanilla that has been
developed in labs plain? Yes. Since a facsimile of vanilla has been recreated
with success, it's what we find in 95
percent of the foods requiring vanilla
as a flavoring ingredient. True vanilla
has hundreds of layers and nuances that cannot be duplicated, so to cut costs,
companies use the fake stuff. Manufactured vanilla is called "Imitation Vanilla" and has
water, caramel color, vanillin (a
natural by product of vanilla), ethyl
vanillin (a tar derivative) and
potassium sorbate (a preservative) as
ingredients. That's what is going in our
vanilla-challenged foods. Is it any
wonder why vanilla is getting such a
A historic demand out weighs supply, so vanilla is very expensive. Purchasing
real vanilla over the fake stuff is still highly recommended. How do you buy
the best vanilla product? Make sure the
label reads "pure" vanilla and not
"imitation." When buying vanilla beans,
choose dark, moist beans that are pliable and have an oily surface.
Vanilla's exotic allure is as deep as the history behind it. A favorite story
of mine is that of the Totonacos, one
of Mexico's ancient peoples. Tzacopontzila and Morning Star were ill-
fated lovers from the tribe. She was
destined to a life of servitude as a
temple virgin to the Gods and he was the
warrior prince who loved her. Both defied the conventions of their duties
and became lovers. The romance was
short-lived, they were decapitated for
their defiance and their beating hearts
were cut out; the bodies thrown into a
deep ravine. On the spot where their blood mingled and soaked into the rich
earth the first vanilla orchid grew,
crowning the twisted and tangled vine that was the lovers' eternal embrace.
Want to review or comment on this
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!
|Reviewed by Ch'erie de Perrot
|Very informative article.
I find that true Vanilla is an excellent rememdy for a smelly fridge, after it has been cleaned, as well as an excellent sweetener for Soya milk products.
The last revelations didn't appeal to much though, but as history states, ill fated lovers in all.
Ty for this