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Exploring Vanilla: An Amazing History and Innovative Recipes

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Vanilla

Vanilla

The tea was steeping when she decided she was hungry. On impulse, she took a jar of strawberry jam from the cupboard. It, too, was local, put up the fall before by one of the island women. Unscrewing the lid, she pried a layer of wax from the top and, taking a spoon, sampled it straight from the jar. She closed her eyes, isolating the sense of taste for the greatest enjoyment. Strawberries... and vanilla? Eyes popping open, she peered into the glass until she spotted the bean among the berries.

— Barbara Delinsky, "Sweet Salt Air"

When Did Vanilla Become a Bad Thing?

My daughter has been looking for a new home; not a starter (she has one of those), not a make-it-do home. This one will be her dream home, her forever home.

I’ve been in her shoes, and I’ve also been in the position of selling a house.

Real estate professionals will tell you to put about half of the furniture in storage, empty the closets, remove personal photographs, and present a blank canvass so that potential buyers will not be distracted by your things, your clutter, and your personality. They need room to breathe so that they can picture their furniture, their photos, and their clutter in your space. (Apparently, homebuyers have no imagination.)

Home sellers are also cautioned to tone down the bright colors. Use neutrals—ivory, cream, beige, gray—nothing too bold or dramatic. The sellers of the homes I’ve seen have certainly taken that advice. Not only are the walls neutral, the floors, the furniture, and the kitchen cabinets; everything within those four walls is blah. I found myself calling them “vanilla houses.” And then it struck me, when did vanilla become synonymous for dull, bland, and boring?

Vanilla used to be so much more than that.

One Thousand Years Ago

Long before European explorers traversed the Atlantic, the Totonac people of (what is now) east-central Mexico dwelled in an area framed by the Sierra Madre to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The geography of their land created two cultures—those who lived inland enjoyed a cool and rainy climate, growing maize and squash, tending livestock and raising poultry. They formed central villages surrounded by farmlands. Those in the coastal lowland had a hot, humid climate. They lived in scattered farmhouses and raised bees, poultry, and hogs. But both groups had one secret, a plant, the Tlilxochitl vine, a medicinal plant growing in their tiny corner of the world, and seemingly nowhere else.

exploring-vanilla

It Was Highly Prized

In 1480 A.D., the Aztecs conquered the Totonac people and forced them to pay “tributes” (a transfer of goods and wealth). Make no mistake, these payments were not a sign of allegiance; the Totonac people were forced to submit to the stronger, more powerful Aztec. Among the many tributes were the fruits of the Tlilxochitl vine. We call it vanilla bean.

In 1518 Hernán Cortéz was placed in command of an expedition to explore and conquer the interior of Mexico. His first stop was Trinidad, Cuba where he hired additional soldiers, 16 horses, and an interpreter, Geronimo de Aguilar. Aguilar was a Franciscan priest who had survived a shipwreck and eight-year enslavement by the Maya and during those eight years, he learned the language of the native people.

April 21, 1519, a fleet of 11 Spanish galleons dropped anchor off the east coast of Mexico. Cortéz and his army of 550 soldiers claimed the land for God and King and were met by the Totonac people. This was not a brief visit; Cortéz took the time to gain intelligence from the Totonac and earn their trust. He desired an audience with the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II and dispatched a courier 200 miles to carry the message. The messenger explained that he had been commissioned by a fair-skinned, bearded man accompanied by man-beasts (the riders on horseback). At this Moctezuma’s blood ran cold. He was well aware of the ancient legend that Quetzalcoatl, a pale, bearded ruler-god would one day return to reclaim his kingdom. And the past decade had been rife with frightening omens—floods, fires, fiery comets, and the voice of a woman wailing in the night, night after night. Had the prophecy come to light?

Moctezuma

Moctezuma

Moctezuma thought carefully and issued a guarded response. He cautioned that the journey was grueling with passage through deserts, over mountains, and near dangerous enemy territories. He hoped his warnings would dissuade the foreigners from paying him an unwelcome visit. And he sweetened the message with extravagant gifts of finery and gold.

Moctezuma’s gifts had the opposite effect. Cortéz was not content with a mere smattering of trinkets. The gold whetted his appetite for even greater wealth. He sank his ships so that his army had no choice but to follow—desertion was out of the question. An alliance was formed with the Totonac leaders. Cortéz’ army was joined by 1,000 native warriors. One by one they overcame every obstacle, adding allies to their ranks with members of the Tlaxcalan and Cholulan tribes.

When they finally reached their destination, Moctezuma himself greeted them, escorting them around the city and satisfying their pride with lavish banquets. Oh, I almost forgot to mention—Moctezuma offered Cortéz chocolatl, a drink made of ground corn, cacao beans, honey, and vanilla pods.

Of course, there’s more to the story of Moctezuma and Cortéz, but you’re here to learn about vanilla. Let’s just say that things didn’t go well for Moctezuma, and Cortéz took the vanilla beans back to Europe. Chocolatl became the “in” thing for the rich and famous and the rest, as they say, is history.

But Wait, There's More

In 1602 Hugh Morgan, the royal pharmacist for Queen Elizabeth I, had the brilliant idea of using vanilla, not with chocolate, but all on its own as a flavoring. That set the stage for the return of vanilla to the Western Hemisphere.

Americans were not much familiar with vanilla until ice cream became popular in the late eighteenth century. Thomas Jefferson discovered its virtues in France and on arriving back in the United States in 1789 sent for some pods from Paris, which must have come from Central America in the first place. By the 19th century, Americans developed a passion for vanilla, especially as an ice-cream flavoring.

— Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink,/John F. Mariani [Lebhar Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 338)

Not All Vanillas Are the Same

Today, vanilla beans are no longer raised solely by the Totonac people; they are grown in numerous countries around the world which means that not all vanilla beans are the same. In addition to four distinct varieties of vanilla, the essence of each one is influenced by soil and climate. Just as with wine grapes or coffee or cocoa beans, nuanced flavors come from variances in altitude, terrain, and weather.

  • Madagascar Bourbon: Despite the name, these beans have nothing to do with whiskey. The taste is sweet and creamy, and what we think of when we hear the word vanilla. This strain of vanilla is the plant that originated in America. They are also grown in the areas surrounding the Indian Ocean (including the Île Bourbon which is how they got their name).
  • Mexican: Think Madagascar but with a spicy kick. This is a perfect choice to accompany cinnamon and spicy chilies.
  • Indonesian: Woody, smoky, and very aromatic.
  • Tahitian: Fruity, floral notes. Some people compare it to cherry or licorice. Use this vanilla in a recipe that relies heavily on a bold vanilla flavor. They are also very aromatic and so are commonly used in commercial fragrance products.

Leading Producers of Vanilla Beans in the World

Source: WorldAtltas.com

RankCountryTons of Vanilla Produced

1

Madagascar

2,926

2

Indonesia

2,304

3

China

885

4

Mexico

513

5

Papua New Guinea

502

6

Turkey

303

7

Uganda

211

8

Tonga

180

9

French Polynesia

24

10

Réunion

21

11

Malawi

20

12

Comoros

15

13

Kenya

15

14

Guadeloupe

11

15

Zimbabwe

11

exploring-vanilla

How Vanilla Is Made

I mentioned above that vanilla is costly because all of the work involved is done by hand. First, the blossoms are hand-pollinated and then hand-picked, but the "beans" at this stage neither smell or taste like vanilla. They have to be blanched to kill any lingering airborne yeast or fungus. This blanching can be done in the sun, in an oven, or even in a freezer.

The beans are then wrapped in cloth and placed in covered boxes where they are allowed to dry and mature. Pure vanilla extract is made from soaking the beans in a mixture of water and alcohol.

Did You Know?

  • The vanilla plant is an orchid.
  • Only 1 percent of the vanilla flavor in the world is real vanilla; the rest is synthetic, lab manufactured.
  • The price of real vanilla is skyrocketing. High demand, weather damage, and the fact that production is extremely labor-intensive are all driving up the cost.
  • During the blooming season, the flowers last only one day.
  • Because the flowers are so delicate, they can only be pollinated by a specific hummingbird species or a small bee; lacking that they must be pollinated by hand.
  • When fresh, vanilla beans have no taste or aroma.
Cranberry Vanilla Bean and Clove Glazed Turkey

Cranberry Vanilla Bean and Clove Glazed Turkey

Cranberry Vanilla Bean and Clove Glazed Turkey

Karlee shares that this recipe has been in her family for ages, and is a part of their annual Thanksgiving tradition. She explains:

"Won’t you pull up a chair at my family’s Thanksgiving with this recipe for Cranberry Vanilla Bean Clove Glazed Turkey? It’s surely one to remember. The warmest spices and the perfect tart-meets-sweet glaze that will relax as it’s consumed. We are certainly thankful for this glaze. Without it, you’ve got pretty basic turkey fixings. Some olive oil, liquid, sweet onion, sage, rosemary… you know… the stuff that should always come to the party. But, when the turkey is done with the baking and basting process, it’s hit a few times with a glaze that seems like it has every right to overthrow everything you thought you knew about this bird."

Vanilla Shrimp Crostini

Vanilla Shrimp Crostini

Vanilla Shrimp Crostini

Tired of the same old shrimp cocktail appetizer? This shrimp crostini from the kitchen of McCormick Spice Company is a delightful mix of tastes and textures and a definite change of pace. Crisp french bread slices are a contrast to the creamy Gruyere cheese. Instead of cocktail sauce, the shrimp are bathed in a butter wine sauce flavored with vanilla and a kick of cayenne pepper.

Vanilla Sweet Potato and Kale Curry

Vanilla Sweet Potato and Kale Curry

Vanilla Sweet Potato and Kale Curry

"Too thick to be a soup and too saucy to be a stew." This is how Janet describes this curry bowl she created when kale was abundant, curry powder was missing from her pantry, and sweet potatoes were begging to be cooked. It's a bowl of comfort with creamy, crunchy and just a bit of sweet heat. If you think that you don't like curry, this one might change your mind.

Mahi Mahi With Mango Vanilla Sauce

Mahi Mahi With Mango Vanilla Sauce

Mahi Mahi With Mango Vanilla Sauce

This recipe for mahi mahi with mango vanilla sauce by Delaware Online (part of the USA Today Network) is an adaptation of a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis. Mahi-mahi is a firm-fleshed fish with a mild flavor (halibut is a good substitute). The mango sauce isn't too sweet and ginger provides an earthy spicy note.

Vanilla Rosemary Carrots

Vanilla Rosemary Carrots

Vanilla Rosemary Carrots

In recent years the flavor combination of sweet/salty has become quite popular (salted caramel is everywhere). Maybe that's why Evan (the Wannabe Chef) created this vanilla rosemary carrots side dish. Carrots are naturally sweet; roasting enhances that flavor and the addition of vanilla makes the sweet taste really pop! Then rosemary and salt are added. I'll bet even the pickiest veggie hater would love these.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad

As I write this article, the days are warm and summer is approaching. When the thermometer climbs most of us change from heavy soups and stews to lighter fare. This strawberry spinach salad would be wonderful for lunch or add some diced rotisserie chicken or cooked shrimp meat to make it a dinner-worthy meal.

What makes this salad special is the dressing—a sweet-sour vinaigrette of balsamic, honey, salt and pepper, and a vanilla bean.

Sources

© 2020 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 24, 2020:

Lawrence, I so enjoy these pieces because I learn along with you.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on May 24, 2020:

Linda

This was a fascinating piece of history, though I have to admit, I've always thought that the Vanilla bean came from the Pacific (Shows how wrong we can be at times) I do know it's the major cash crop of some Pacific nations.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2020:

Hi Rachel, I'm so happy to hear from you. The carrots are sooo good. I hope you'll give them a try.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 21, 2020:

Yes, we can get fresh mahi mahi here. My brother catches it all the time. We call it dolphin, but it's mahi mahi.

Rachel Alba on April 21, 2020:

Hi Linda, How interesting. I never even thought about the origin of vanilla. I learned something new today. Thanks for that. Your recipes look so good too. Thanks for sharing them.

Blessings to you.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 21, 2020:

Shauna, thank you so much. I'm always looking for new ways to use familiar food items, something out of the ordinary. Anyone can use vanilla to make sugar cookies, right?

Because you live in Florida you can probably get fresh mahi mahi, right? I'm waiting to pick up some fresh halibut.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 21, 2020:

Linda, the history of vanilla is fascinating and, as always, you did a superb job of presenting it!

I had no idea vanilla as made its way into savory recipes. I think out of all of these, I'd be willing to try the mahi mahi with mango sauce.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 21, 2020:

Bill, if you had expressed any displeasure with THIS one, I would have had some serious concerns about you. Glad you liked it (but are you going to try any of these savory recipes?).

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 21, 2020:

RInita, it's good to see you here again. I really enjoyed doing the research on this one and I'm glad that you liked it. The imitation flavor isn't bad, but it's not a copy-cat, that's for sure.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 21, 2020:

Flourish, I made the carrots last night and they were amazing. I hope you'll give them a try.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 21, 2020:

Now you're talking. I love me vanilla. The history, and how it was made, fascinating stuff there, my friend. Loved it all on this cloudy Tuesday morn.

Be safe, be happy, be you!

Rinita Sen on April 21, 2020:

Wonderful article on Vanilla. Enjoyed every bit of the history. I'm sure whatever we get here is all synthetic Vanilla.. yikes.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 20, 2020:

Vanilla is one thing I don’t skimp on. I buy the good stuff. The history was very interesting here and that carrot recipe begs to be tried!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 20, 2020:

Pamela, the real thing is pricey, but once you try it, you'll never go back to the imitation stuff. Shrimp is naturally kinda sweet, so taking it to the next level with vanilla isn't that much of a stretch. Have you ever had coconut shrimp? It's soooo good!

Thank you for stopping by.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 20, 2020:

Linda, The history of vanilla is very interesting, as well as, the variety of recipes. I never knew there was so many ways to use vanilla that was not in a dessert. Using vanilla even with fish was a surprise.

My mother always made sure she bought the good pure quality of vanilla, and I have followed her lead. I really enjoyed this article.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 20, 2020:

Eric, this could open a new direction for you--using vanilla in savory cooking. Time to go shopping?

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 20, 2020:

Jason, your comment brings back a memory for me as well. When my daughters were very little (between 2 and 4 years of age) we had a game called "good smell, bad smell." They would take turns selecting a jar from the spice cabinet, unscrew the lid, and inhale. Was it a good smell, or a bad smell?

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 20, 2020:

I need to check out getting "real" vanilla. I love the taste and could definitely do the shrimp and curry. I had no idea that only 1% is real. Another great addition here. Yikes am I hungry for Vanilla.

Jason Nicolosi from AZ on April 20, 2020:

Hi Linda. I loved the article. When I was growing up my mom always had vanilla extract and my favorite vanilla beans in the pantry. When I was a kid I used to love smelling the jar of vanilla beans we had. Mmmm. So good. It brought back a lot of good memories reading your article. Plus, I learned some stuff. "Salud!"