There is nothing ordinary about vanilla, considering its history

August 31, 2018

If I were to ask you what your favorite flavor of ice cream is, the chances are the majority of you would say vanilla in some form or other.

That’s OK, it’s the world’s favorite, too, and it’s not only in ice cream, but in many other things from cakes to cookies and beyond.

Most of us love it, but how many of you realize that the taste you like so much first came from the seed pod of a wild orchid that was originally grown in Mexico?

Way back before Christopher Columbus “discovered” the new world, the plant was cultivated by the Totonac people who inhabited the area of Mexico that currently forms the states of Veracruz, Puebla and Hidalgo.

They have a legend that says many years ago a beautiful princess ran away with her lover. Her father did not approve of the match, they were caught and the irate king had them beheaded.

From the spot where they died it is said a vine grew up and this became the orchid from which we get vanilla. The Totonac were conquered by the Aztecs around the year 1,500 and they liked the taste of the plant too, so they forced the Totonac to pay tribute to them in the form of vanilla pods.

A hundred years later the Spanish under Cortez arrived and discovered the pleasant tasting vanilla pods. They liked them so much that they gave the plant its name, which comes from the Spanish vainilla, meaning little pod, and they soon started exporting it to Europe and Africa.

Unfortunately, although these transplanted vines grew well, they did not produce fruit. The plant requires a tree or pole to climb up and, if allowed to, will go up as far as it can, producing few flowers.

In order to cultivate it, the growing top needs to be turned downwards and this helps to promote flower production. When the flowers open, they last less than a day and in Mexico they required the attentions of a certain type of tiny bee or hummingbird in order to become pollinated.

Mexico was the major producer of vanilla when, in 1819, the French tried to import the vines to the islands of Reunion and Mauritius.

They grew but didn’t produce because the islands lacked the pollinators until, in 1841, Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave living on Reunion, invented a fast, efficient way of pollinating the flowers using a sliver of bamboo and his thumb.

His method worked, the vines began to form pods and the French exported the plants to the Comoros Islands, the Seychelles and Madagascar.

By the end of the 19th century, these places were producing more than 200 tons of vanilla pods each year, making up 80 percent of the world supply.

These days Madagascar and Indonesia are the biggest producers. Vanilla is a very labor-intensive crop that is highly vulnerable to the weather.

The vines have to be planted and their tops folded down. The farmer must check daily for the flowers, which have to be hand-pollinated as soon as they appear.

You might think that once this is done, the growers can sit back and wait for the pods to ripen before harvesting them, but, particularly in Madagascar, that isn’t the case.

On this island when the fruit begins to form, the farmer switches to working as an armed guard at night, patrolling his crops. He’s not there to ward off marauding wild beasts, but rather to thwart the efforts of criminal gangs because, thanks to a cyclone that hit the island and ruined many plantations last year, supplies are limited and prices are sky high.

They reached as much as $275 a pound earlier this year and stealing the crop has become big business in Madagascar. Some of the farmers have even taken to stamping their names indelibly on every individual pod as it grows and several people have been murdered in order to steal a harvest.

When the pods reach maturity they are picked quickly and then rushed to market before they start to ferment because that spoils the flavor.

The buyers immerse the green pods in boiling water to stop the fermentation and it is during this process that they turn the familiar red-black color we’re used to. After this, they are dried for up to a year before being sent out for sale.

This news about the very high prices vanilla is fetching might worry some of you who are really attached to the flavor because high material costs are usually deflected down to the customer. You don’t need to worry, though. The chances are that most of the vanilla you’ve tasted came from a laboratory and not from an orchid’s seed pods.

The compound vanillin, which gives vanilla its distinctive scent and taste, has been artificially produced by scientists for over a hundred years. They’ve made it from the husks of rice, wood pulp, the by-products of paper making, coal and tar. Today most of it comes from the petrochemical industry and, as the lab-produced substance is only about one-twentieth the price of the real thing, it’s far more popular with the food production industry.

How can you tell the difference? If you’re eating ice cream that’s labeled “vanilla” then it contains the extract from vanilla pods. If it’s labeled “vanilla flavor” or even “artificial vanilla,” it’s fake. Personally I like vanilla bean flavor, the one with the little black dots in it. These are the vanilla seeds and they apparently add to the flavor, but to be honest, I can’t tell the difference between the real and artificial stuff; I just like the taste.

Derek Coleman is a parttime writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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