By Scott Mechura
EBS Food Columnist
Why does vanilla get a bad rap?
Last month we learned a little more about saffron, the world’s most expensive spice. Now let’s explore the Park Place to saffron’s Boardwalk.
“Plain vanilla.” A term we hear frequently. We use it when a machine, car or piece of technology lacks any sort of bells and whistles. Or to describe the droning background music played in elevators to fill the otherwise uncomfortable silence between strangers.
But to the contrary.
Vanilla is expensive, hard to propagate, and one of the most unique flavors in the world. With such a widespread use and hefty price tag, it fascinates me that one of the world’s most sought after, prized spices would become synonymous with boring, and almost an afterthought in virtually any baking recipe in most cultures.
The fruit we know as vanilla is the pod of the Mexican flat-leafed vanilla orchid. At lengths up to 300 feet, it is among the top 20 longest vines in the world.
The Totonac people of eastern Mexico were the first to cultivate vanilla. When the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs, they called the pods of the orchid “black flower” because they dried and shriveled to their dark state shortly after picking.
The Aztecs almost immediately began flavoring their chocolate drinks with it, but Europeans believed it to be “a drink for pigs.” It wasn’t until the apothecary of Queen Elizabeth used it without chocolate that it took hold in Europe.
Various species of vanilla are grown in China, Madagascar, Tonga, Mexico, Turkey, Reunion, Comoros, Guadeloupe, and many places in between. But that wasn’t always the case.
In the 1520s, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes introduced vanilla to Europe, where they immediately coveted its sweet, floral aroma and flavor. However, it was almost exclusively enjoyed by the wealthy aristocracy because cultivating it in mass quantities proved challenging.
But in 1841, thanks to a 12-year-old slave by the name of Edmond Albius, and a stick, that all changed. He learned that these flowers could be hand-pollinated rather easily and quickly.
Soon plants were sent from the tiny islands of Reunion and Mauritius to several more islands along the coast of Africa, not the least of which, Madagascar, along with instructions on how to hand-pollinate them, sparking the beginning of global cultivation.
There are three major varieties of vanilla used for culinary purposes today. But the majority of vanilla is of the bourbon variety. There is a misconception out there that it got its name because the pods are saturated in American bourbon. This is not the case. As to the origins of its name, I offer my own theory.
Some contest the name of American bourbon and its connection to Bourbon County, Kentucky, claiming the timing doesn’t add up. In what turns out to be a classic question of chicken or the egg, bourbon vanilla is from Mexico. Though not an appellation, bourbon is an American spirit, and American oak is coveted by wineries and distilleries worldwide for its distinct vanilla characteristics. To me, there’s a connection in there somewhere.
So did the Totonacs take the name because the pods resembled the flavor from American oak, or did bourbon, as opposed to the name whiskey, get its name from aging in American oak barrels with the bourbon vanilla flavor profile?
Either way, vanilla is anything but plain.
My mother recently reminded me that even as a child, I asked why vanilla ice cream was called plain ice cream. “Vanilla is a flavor isn’t it?”
“Well yes, I suppose so,” she said.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.