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Our Blog: Chocolate Talk

4 Reasons Vanilla is Anything But “Vanilla”

How many times have you heard “vanilla” used as a synonym for “plain,” “basic,” or “boring”? Maybe you’re still using a “vanilla” flip-phone while all your friends have the iPhone X; maybe your co-worker who’s always in bed by 9 p.m. has a “vanilla” social life. Or maybe you’ve said, when asked for your ice cream preference, “I’ll just have vanilla.”

But there’s nothing blah about vanilla, which is such a common flavoring that perhaps we’ve stopped noticing it’s even there. That little brown bottle of extract in your cupboard is a lot more interesting than it seems. Vanilla is a highly coveted, exotic substance with a rich and complicated history, and doesn’t deserve to be lumped together with “plain”. Here’s four reasons why everyone should start giving vanilla a little more credit.

(left) vanilla-orchid-rs by Augustine Fou; (right) Vanilla bean by Whitney. Both licensed under CC BY 2.0

1. It's derived from orchids

Vanilla beans aren’t beans - they’re actually the seed pods of orchids from the Vanilla genus. (Incidentally, the word “vanilla” itself is derived from the Spanish vainilla, literally “little pod”). Split open a vanilla bean - or a vanilla “fruit”, if you want to be scientifically correct - and you’ll find it’s full of a sticky, grainy black paste. Each of those grains is a vanilla seed.

At Hedonist, we use the back of a knife to scrape all the seeds from the pod and add them to our salted caramels and vanilla ice cream, which is why you’ll see tiny black specks in both.

In vanilla extract, those seeds are macerated and filtered in ethanol and water. There’s a hearty splash of vanilla extract in Hedonist waffle cones and tiny toffee!


f5198784 by Ryan Sitzman is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

2. It’s BFFs with chocolate

There’s a reason you always see vanilla and chocolate side by side - they grew up together! The vanilla orchid originally grew wild in the tropical forests of Mesoamerica, where the cacao tree is also native. The Maya used vanilla, cacao, and spices to make a flavorful beverage; a little later on, the Aztecs added vanilla to a similar beverage called chocolatl.

When the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica in the early 16th century, they took a liking to both the fragrant vanilla orchid and the dark, rich cacao bean. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is credited with introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s. The two have been inseparable ever since.

Vanilla vine by foam is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

3. It's super high-maintenance

Though the Europeans loved vanilla, it was clear vanilla did not love them back. Growers were able to cultivate the flower in botanical gardens in England and France, but could not get it to produce the prized seed pods. Unfortunately, vanilla’s natural pollinator, the Melipona bee, is a Mexican native and does not exist in Europe. Without bees, there was hardly any vanilla production outside of Mexico.

That changed in the mid-19th century, when an enslaved 12-year-old boy living on the island of Réunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, discovered how to pollinate vanilla flowers by hand. His painstaking technique helped vanilla cultivation spread to other tropical locations like Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, and is still in use today. Vanilla’s high-maintenance pollination process is part of the reason why it remains the second-most expensive spice in the world after saffron. A bottle containing just two vanilla beans will set you back $13-$18.

4. It's got copycats.

If vanilla is so expensive, why are vanilla-flavored products ubiquitous? Plot twist: not all vanilla flavors come from the vanilla flower. Because of the scarcity and expense of natural vanilla, most of the vanilla flavoring out there (as much as 99%) is synthetic.

In the late 1800s, scientists learned how to derive vanillin — the compound that gives vanilla its unmistakable aroma — from sources far less expensive than the vanilla orchid. Early versions of vanillin were extracted from clove oil, although most modern-day synthetic vanillin is extracted from guaiacol (obtained by distilling wood tar) or lignin (derived from the cell walls of plants).

The prevalence of vanillin doesn’t mean natural vanilla is going away, however. Thanks to increasing consumer demand for all-natural food and drink, natural vanilla is more popular than ever. At Hedonist Artisan Chocolates & Ice Cream, we only ever use natural vanilla seed pods and extract in our products.

Want to know more? Check out these articles:

The Bittersweet Story of Vanilla - Smithsonian
The Problem with Vanilla - Scientific American
The History of Vanilla - National Geographic

 
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