The Tale of the Ice Cream Orchid

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More than half of all the world’s vanilla beans end up in the United States. Half of those are used in the dairy industry, mainly in the form of vanilla extract, or essence.
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Under the right conditions, an established vanilla vine is capable of long life in the wild, perhaps a thousand years.
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Of all the orchids, the vanilla family is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop.

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.

AN ENCHANTED PAST

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.

VANILLA TODAY

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.

VANILLA REALITIES

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.

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