Vanilla: the surprising history of the sweet spice

Here, we dissect the bittersweet history of this omni-present spice and delve into why using real vanilla is more important than ever.

By LittlePod
Published 7 Dec 2021, 08:58 GMT
Vanilla's reputation as plain might have something to do with the fact that 97% of vanilla ...

Vanilla's reputation as plain might have something to do with the fact that 97% of vanilla flavouring sold in the western world is artificial, and this is where LittlePod, which produces real, sustainable and ethical vanilla, steps in.

Photograph by LittlePod

It’s the most ubiquitous flavour of ice cream. It’s used to add a sweet kick to lattes and it’s the star ingredient in a wealth of baked treats. Yet it’s an ingredient we take so much for granted that we use it — rather undeservedly — as a byword for the bland and the ordinary. But the story of vanilla — a spice derived from the fruit of an orchid plant — is more complex than its reputation would have you believe.

Back in 1528, when the Conquistador Hernán Cortés returned to Spain from an expedition to what is today mainland Mexico, he brought with him an exotic collection of living imports to impress King Charles V with: jaguars, armadillos, opossums and Mexican acrobats and jugglers. There was also a sweet spice the Spanish had named ‘vainilla’ (meaning ‘little pod’), a prized commodity the invaders had seized from the Aztecs, who themselves had snatched it from the Totonacs on Mexico’s east coast, believed to be the original cultivators of the orchid.

After its arrival on the Spanish mainland, cooks started to add the sweet, subtle flavour to chocolate, much like the Aztecs did. But it wasn’t until the early 17th century that vanilla’s distinctive flavour was brought to the fore, thanks to an inventive apothecary, Hugh Morgan, who tinkered with a pod and developed vanilla-flavoured sweetmeats for Queen Elizabeth I.

She, reportedly, fell in love with vanilla’s distinctive aroma — which eventually made ripples and then waves among the tables of European nobility. During this time, the spice was still expensive and unattainable to most, as the only place in the world it bloomed was Mexico. The first cuttings brought over to Europe would grow and flower, but no pods sprouted, leaving cultivators scratching their heads. It was the Belgian botanist Charles Morren who realised that a particular stingless Mexican bee, the melipona, was responsible for pollinating the majority of vanilla flowers. But it wasn’t until 1841, when a 12-year-old slave on the French island of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, made a game-changing discovery. His name was Edmond Albius — an orphan who was sent to work for the botanist Féréol Bellier Beaumont. While studying the vanilla vines on Féréol’s estate, Edmond used a blade of grass to gently brush the pollen onto the stigma — a process he believed would fertilise the plant. His intuition paid off and his pain-staking technique of lifting a membrane between the male and female parts of the flower resulted in a vine blooming with pods — a process that’s still used by vanilla growers all over the world. ­­­­

Although Edmond’s discovery earned him his freedom, he died destitute in 1880, having never earned a penny. Today, his statue stands in Le Bocage, on Réunion, as a tribute to his pioneering technique and vanilla is still cultivated on the island. Here, in Sainte-Rose, you can walk amid the vanilla creepers — some of which can grow up to 300ft in length. Their roots plunge into the volcanic soil, and travellers take guided tours to gaze as growers use a toothpick to bring together the male and female parts of the flower — just as Edmond discovered, and just as the black melipona bees continue to do in Mexico.

Once the green pods have bloomed and are ready for harvesting, they’re immersed in hot water to trigger fermentation before being left to dry in the sun for two to three weeks and then taken into the shade to halt fermentation. At this point, the pods are sealed in a closed box for two months — a process that helps those distinctive and warming flavours to develop.

Real vanilla crusader LittlePod was initially set up to champion the benefits of natural and responsibly sourced vanilla and to help communities in Madagascar that rely on vanilla cultivation (the East African island nation produces around 80% of the world’s supply). The spice’s reputation as plain might have something to do with the fact that 97% of vanilla flavouring sold in the western world is made using artificial vanillin, which is a much cheaper alternative to real vanilla. This is where LittlePod, which produces real, sustainable and ethical vanilla paste in a tube (and is the first to do so), steps in.

Vanilla is a high-value commodity for farmers and its cultivation isn't short of difficulties — including diseases, drought, hurricanes and the most problematic one of them all, theft. LittlePod believes that, to help Madagascar and other vanilla-growing areas in the world, it's crucial that the West pays a little more for real vanilla instead of opting for cheaper alternatives. The effect this would have on the livelihoods of vanilla farmers is tremendous  — and would result in farmers continuing to cultivate this remarkable spice. 

Here, LittlePod reveals five of its favourite vanilla recipes to try at home — using their easy-to-use, real vanilla paste, of course. 

Founder and managing director Janet Sawyer MBE BEM with Irene Hendry, daughter of a vanilla farmer in Tanzania. 

Photograph by LittlePod

LittlePod recommends five vanilla recipes

1. Real vanilla ice cream
Made with LittlePod natural vanilla paste blended with double cream and condensed milk, this homespun recipe results in an ultra-smooth and unctuous ice cream without being overly sweet. And what’s more, there’s no need to stir or churn — your velvety scoops will be ready in four to six hours.

2. Persian rice pudding
This is a comforting pudding with an edge — thick with the punchy, aromatic flavours of rosewater, cinnamon, pink peppercorns, flaked almonds, a pinch of nutmeg and a whole vanilla pod. Serve warm with a scattering of pomegranate seeds, roughly chopped pistachios and sliced figs.

3. Cassoulet
Packed with earthy flavours and made in a slow cooker, a duck cassoulet is one of those hearty, bubbling dishes that’ll perk up wintry nights. Rub the vanilla paste into the duck breast and sear in the sweetness, before adding in a hoard of ingredients, including salty bacon, haricot beans and dry white wine.

4. Honey- and vanilla-glazed salmon
Vanilla with fish? It might sound odd but we promise you it works — the spice works really well as a marinade with fish, and when combined with honey, chopped ginger, and salt and pepper, you’ll be left with a sticky and lively take on salmon, best enjoyed with a watercress salad and a few drops of lemon juice.

5. Autumn marrow chutney
Use up leftover chunks of marrow and simmer with onions, apples, white vinegar, dark brown sugar, finely chopped chillies, mustard and vanilla paste to create a bold and zesty chutney. 

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