The Tale of the Ice Cream Orchid

There is no substitute for natural vanilla, the world’s most exotic and sensual plant.


Illustration by Marjorie Leggitt

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Editor’s Note: The following text has been excerpted from VANILLA © 2004 by Tim Ecott and is reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

The vanilla plant is a tropical vine, which can reach a length of over 100 feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants — the orchids — currently known to contain more than 25,000 species, and counting. Of all the orchids, the vanilla family is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop, as distinct from orchids cultivated and traded simply for their decorative value. These are not rare, bizarrely shaped hothouse exotics to inspire orchid collectors with their well-documented fanatical relish. The vanilla orchid has its own appeal, a fruit with a scent so unique, so distinctive to the human palate that it was once worth its weight in silver.

The vanilla orchid is not a showy flower; it has only a slight scent, with no element of vanilla flavor or aroma. When its pale yellow flowers are pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into the fruits, just like extra-long green beans, we call ‘pods’ or ‘beans.’ They contain thousands of tiny black seeds. The growing process lasts up to nine months, but only when the pods turn brown after being dried and cured do they develop the distinctive aroma we call vanilla. Drying, curing and conditioning the pods is an art, which, if done properly, takes another nine months. Vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world.

Like all agricultural commodities, vanilla goes through periodic cycles of boom and bust prices. Even at its lowest level, there will always be farmers in Madagascar, Mexico or Indonesia who are so poor that they will cultivate vanilla vines. As I write, the price for gourmet quality vanilla beans is at an all-time high — more than $500 a kilogram — inspiring growers to stand guard over their plants in the tropical jungle.

There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid, and they grow all over the tropics with the exception of Australia. All of the vanilla orchids produce fruits containing seeds, but only a few species bear the large, aromatic pods, which can be used commercially. Virtually all of the cultivated vanilla in the world today comes from just one species, Vanilla planifolia (sometimes called Vanilla fragrans), a plant indigenous to Central America, and particularly the southeastern part of Mexico. At least two other varieties, Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitensis also provide a serviceable culinary pod, although they are not as readily obtainable and they produce a different flavor and aroma to the planifolia.


Vanilla is one of the most widely used flavoring substances in the world and Americans consume more vanilla than anyone else on earth.

The vanilla story begins in the salt-thick air of Veracruz. Here, the first vanilla plants were cultivated and tended by the people who call themselves Totonac. These people found the wild orchids and called them xa’nat. The Totonac say the flowers and their scented seed pods sprang from blood. Not just ordinary blood, but the blood of a princess who was so beautiful and so pure in spirit that her father decided she should never be possessed by any mortal man.

According to the Totonac legend, the princess was the daughter of King Teniztli, and he named her Tzacopontziza, after the Morning Star. To keep her pure, the King had his daughter blessed by the priests and consecrated to the Goddesss Tonacayahua, the Goddess of Fertility. Inevitably, a young man of the tribe, named Zkata Oxga — Running Deer — fell in love with the girl and abducted her, making off with her into the mountains. The legend says that before the young couple could reach safety, they were intercepted by a fire-breathing monster who blocked their escape, allowing the high priests of the king to capture them.

Princess Tzacopantziza and her lover had committed a mortal sin, and the priests decapitated them both and threw their bodies into a mountain ravine. As their blood seeped into the ground, it dried the earth, and after some days a bush sprang from the ground where their blood had spilled. Very soon an orchid was seen growing in among its branches. The plant grew rapidly and produced small, pale flowers which in time sprouted several beans, delicate yet strong. When the beans matured, they darkened, eventually emitting an exquisite perfume more beautiful than anything the subjects of King Tenitzli had ever known before. People believed the scent was the pure, sweet soul of the dead princess and the orchid that grew in the mountains was declared sacred.

Today, the Totonac people still call it xa’nat and in the north of their domain they use the word to mean anything to do with vanilla, the flower, the pods and what they call the fat or oil from the pods, which gives them the scent they value. Perhaps the earliest known use for vanilla pods was a simple but effective deodorant for the Indians’ houses, and it is still used in that way in central Mexico today, where a bunch of dried beans is tied together and suspended with string from a hook on a wall. Traditionally, the Totonac women, and women from other tribes in whose territory the plants grew, would place oiled vanilla beans in their hair, perfuming it with the subtle scent from the plant.

There is no record of the Totonac using vanilla as a foodstuff, or flavoring, but when they were subjugated by the Aztec Empire it was their duty to send vanilla pods to the great capital at Tenochtitlan. The Empire relied on its trading alliances as much, if not more than on its military power.

The pre-Columbian history of vanilla can be linked to the better-known story of the cacao nut, another New World commodity that had a huge impact on the European diet. Archaeological remains tell us that the kernels of the cacao tree were in use in Central America for more than 2,000 years before the Spanish Conquest. It is probable that around the same period vanilla was also well-known as a condiment, something to ameliorate the bitter taste of the cocoa powder, which in the Aztec period (1200 to 1500 a.d.) was turned into the royal delicacy. In the Aztec language, xocoatl means bitter water, and the concoction they drank included honey as sweetener. The Aztecs also added peppers, corn and vanilla, whipping it all up with maize into a kind of gruel.

Like chocolate, vanilla was not an everyday ingredient for ordinary people in Mexico, and even the Aztec aristocracy used it mostly as an after-dinner luxury. They never saw for themselves the plant that produced the dark pods they used to soften their bitter water. Hidden deep in the tropical forests far from Tenochtitlan, vanilla was known only to the people who lived within its range. Because they knew only the dark fruits of the vanilla, the Aztecs mistakenly called the plant tlilxochitl — the black flower.

Vanillin is also found in the cell walls of other plants, but nowhere does vanillin occur in such high concentrations as in cured vanilla beans.


Years later, in an English country kitchen, the bean lies on the cutting board, a sliver of rippled darkness against the pale wood. Chef picks it up and slips the point of a sharp knife into the flesh near one end. It is moist but firm, and the knife moves smoothly from right to left, splitting the pod in two. The two halves of the fruit’s outer flesh are still attached to each other at the tip, like an ultra-slim banana peeled back to its base. He turns the knife, angling it away from his fingers and pressing down against the lower flap of the bean, pushing the edge of the steel along its length to scour out the moist seeds. He takes another bean from the box and begins again.

There is milk and cream warming in the pan. Twelve fresh golden egg yolks glisten in a bowl. He adds sugar to the eggs and whisks them rapidly until the mix lightens, not quite white. The pan comes off the flame and he scrapes the gleaming black treasure into the mixture, along with the eviscerated pods. They are limp. Now the eggs and sugar join the liquid. Back to the heat it goes and he begins to stir, stopping the sugar from catching on the base of the pan. Now and then the beans appear, like logs in a flood, dark flecks of seed and flesh speckling the swirling yellow flow. After a short time it thickens and he pours the mixture through a sieve into a white bowl. Two dark, whole coffee beans are dropped into the liquid, along with the spent pods. Now, he covers it close so a skin will not form, and places the bowl in the fridge to steep and cool. Tomorrow when the flavor is full, it will be turned into ice cream.

Chef hands me the spoon to taste. He cannot know what he offers. There is the story of a Mexican orchid, and the scent of an Indian Ocean island.

Now endangered in the wild, vanilla is the world’s most labor-intensive agricultural crop and more expensive to procure today than in any time in history.


It is a harsh reality that the volume of processed foods produced in the world is too great to be satisfied by the 2,000 tons (at best) of natural vanilla available each year. For several decades, almost 90 percent of the “vanilla flavor” used in foods has been created by the addition of ingredients containing synthetic vanillin — a naturally occurring component in vanilla beans, but which is also found in the cell walls of other plants. Vanillin has been found in barley, wine and asparagus as well as in rum and whiskey. Wine, red or white, that is left to mature in green oak barrels may also develop a distinctive vanillin note, and it is also a factor in the fermentation of certain grapes. But nowhere does vanillin occur in such high concentrations as are found in cured vanilla beans.

The effects produced by the natural fragrance and taste of vanilla are crucial to the overall richness of innumerable products. In 1900, the American flavor manufacturer Joseph Burnett wrote:

“Let the chemist experiment over his tubes and phials and he will, he can never devise anything in the way of imitation to compare with Nature’s own handiwork; the secret formula for the delicate qualities of vanilla, which minister to taste and smell alike, cannot be wrested from her.”

Over a century later we still cannot match or replicate the subtlety of natural vanilla.

Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid by Tim Ecott is available on our Bookshelf, Page 56.