The History of Vanilla

24th April 2018

There’s a little waffling here: one source claims that actually it’s Democrats who prefer vanilla, while Republicans go for chocolate; and a Baskin-Robbins poll found that there’s a substantial contingent in the Southwest that shuns both in favor of mint chocolate chip.  On the other hand, the International Ice Cream Association, which should know, puts vanilla at the top of the charts as first choice of 29 percent of ice-cream eaters, feebly followed by chocolate (8.9 percent), butter pecan (5.3 percent), and strawberry (5.3 percent).

Given our passion for vanilla, it seems peculiar that “plain vanilla” is the going synonym for anything basic, bland, or blah. A plain-vanilla wardrobe lacks pizzazz; plain-vanilla technologies lack bells and whistles; plain-vanilla automobiles miss out on chrome, fins, and flashy hood ornaments; and plain-vanilla music is the sort of soulless drone that afflicts us in elevators. The truth is, though, that plain vanilla is anything but dull.

Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, a sprawling conglomeration of some 25,000 different species. Vanilla is a native of South and Central America and the Caribbean; and the first people to have cultivated it seem to have been the Totonacs of Mexico’s east coast. The Aztecs acquired vanilla when they conquered the Totonacs in the 15th Century; the Spanish, in turn, got it when they conquered the Aztecs. One source claims that it was introduced to western Europe by Hernán Cortés-though at the time it was eclipsed by his other American imports, which included jaguars, opossums, an armadillo, and an entire team of ballplayers equipped with bouncing rubber balls.

If pollination is successful, a fruit develops in the form of a 6-to-10-inch-long pod, filled with thousands of minuscule black seeds (the appealing specks in good-quality vanilla ice cream). Transplants of vanilla to tropical and presumably vanilla-friendly regions around the globe, however-lacking the proper bees-remained determinedly podless until 1841, when Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave boy on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, figured out how to hand-pollinate the vanilla blooms using a stick and a flip of the thumb. The simple technique had far-reaching implications. Vanilla plantations sprang up across the globe, from Madagascar to India, Tahiti, and Indonesia. Today about 75 percent of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar and Réunion.

The vanilla beans-which at harvest look like string beans-are individually hand-picked as they become ripe, and then are subjected to a prolonged, multi-step curing process. The end result is the dessiccated, but aromatic, black pods sold by spice purveyors. The pokiness of the vanilla plant-it takes nine months for the pods to ripen-and the grueling nature of the harvesting and post-harvest preparation means that we, internationally, don’t produce much vanilla. Total worldwide production is about 2000 metric tons, which is a drop in the bucket when it comes to vanilla demand. The vast bulk-99 percent-of vanilla-flavored products on the market, from vanilla-flavored vodka to vanilla wafers and vanilla pudding, don’t actually contain vanilla.

 

Source: by Rebecca Rupp, National Geographic.

To read the full article, please click here.

 


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