Sunday, April 19, 2009

Vanilla Voyage

This culinary adventure begins in the age of the Conquistador, in Castilian Spain. The parents of young Hernándo Cortés Pizarro sent their only son to study law, but he longed for a less cerebral life. Failing law school, he returned home, and became involved with a local young lady. His desire for her was matched only by his curiosity about the mysterious “New World” west of the Atlantic’s watery horizon.
His desire for her would not deter Hernan’s ambition. He signed onto an expedition to explore this New World. Before sailing west, he climbed the wall to the young lady’s apartment, to bid her adieu.
The wall collapsed, a heap of rubble upon the would-be Romeo, forcing a different type of bed rest than the young man imagined. It wasn’t until 1504 that Cortés sailed from Spain to meet his destiny as the bold explorer, conqueror and governor of New Spain, now known as Mexico.
When Cortés returned to Spain, be brought riches from the new territory. Gold. Silver. New flavors- chocolate and vanilla. The Aztec Emperor Montezuma introduced the conquistadors to it when serving his most honored guests with a sweetened chocolate beverage, laced with pulverized ripened fruits of the vanilla orchid. This is a brief history of the cultivation of vanilla.

Vanilla quickly captured the hearts of Europeans. Not just as a flavoring for chocolate. Queen Elizabeth was besotted with vanilla custard. Its reputation as an aromatic perfume with medicinal and aphrodisiac value spread. As interest in the new commodity grew, the desire to expand where it could be cultivated became an obsession of traders.

Not all orchids bare fruit. While orchids are the single largest plant group, numbering in excess of 23,000 varieties, barely 110 of these are capable of forming fruit.

Of these, only the vining orchid V. planifolia produces green bean shaped fruits laden with the signature scent.

There is but the briefest opportunity for insects to pollinate this yellowish green Cattleya-like orchid or the flower simply dies without baring fruit. Despite the best attempts by prestigious horticulturalists to produce crops away from its native Mexican rain forest, insects in prospective groves were just not willing to do their part in pollination. The farmers pressed forward, but their alternative methods to coax a vanilla crop by hand proved clumsy, unreliable and unprofitable.

Then, east of Madagascar, on the French Island of Réunion, a twelve year old orphaned slave, Edmond Albius, changed the course of history. According to Wikipedia, Albius developed this technique to manually manipulate a fruit into being.
“In 1841, Albius discovered how to quickly pollinate the vanilla orchid with a thin stick or blade of grass and a simple thumb gesture. With the stick or grass blade, field hands lift the rostellum, the flap that separates the male anther from the female stigma, and then, with their thumbs, smear the sticky pollen from the anther over the stigma.”
Now, the rare vanilla orchid is grown in many regions worldwide in a band which extends 20 degrees north and south of the Equator’s girth.
There is a complex richness in real vanilla. Imitation vanilla only contains one aromatic, vanillin, synthesized from guaiacol, a coal tar derivative; or produced from lignin, a byproduct of the paper industry. By contrast, real vanilla is composed of 250 harmonious organic components. The aromatic scent of real vanilla is complex- calming, comforting to the nose- uplifting other ingredients to the taste. It elongates and elevates the pleasure of the moment.
To choose artificial vanilla flavoring over real vanilla is to choose to play a single ivory key when the whole keyboard is available.
Because aroma is such an important component of enjoyable food, I insist that only the finest vanilla be used in my kitchen. After years of experimentation with various brands, I am pleased to stock my cabinet with Rodelle Gourmet Vanilla products.

Just as the right wine elevates the dining experience, so does Rodelle Vanilla. There are things I will compromise on when cooking. But not with vanilla. It must be real. And for gastronomic pleasure, there is no better vanilla on the market.

What are some of your favorite uses for vanilla? Please share.

Credits and Links of Interest
Painting of the Spanish Explorer is by unknown artist in 16th Century.
Group orchid shot from my personal collection.
Image of V plantifolia courtesy of National Park Service, Everglades National Park
Vining orchid photograph copyrite by David.Monniaux

The image of Edmond Albius firstpublished in Album de l'Ile de la Réunion (volume III - 1863)
Lithography : Antoine Roussin / Publisher : Antoine Roussin
To learn more about the line of Rodelle Vanilla products, please visit their site at

Cost Plus World Market is now the exclusive purveyor of Rodelle's 'Vanillas of the World'- a delightful way to taste the individuality of different climates and soil.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for that most interesting history lesson on Cortez and then vanilla!
No wonder. Somehow I acquired a bottle of imitation vanilla in my cupboard along with the real kind. When my chef son was here, he came across the bottle of imitation and immediately trashed it! Well, I had never used it nor did I intend to! LOVE vanilla! I use that fragrance as room spray in the bathrooms. Most importantly, it is the aroma of my life long favorite perfume, "Shalimar".
Thank you for a most interesting blog!
Hugs, Trisha

Frequent Traveler said...

I'd never heard of Rodelle vanilla ! I must try it - I've used Neilsen-Massey for the last few years and loved it for baking, especially cookies and fruit pies !

Lydia said...

Trisha- Thank you on info for Shalimar. Isn't it a treat to have a son who knows the little tricks of the trade wich make good cooking great!
One of my pet peeves are the scented candles labeled "Vanilla" but smell like playdough. They are probably manufactured with the artificial stuff.

Annie- Neilsen-Massey is another great brand. Vanilla is like wine- it tastes of where it is grown and how it is processed. Preference between good brands can be a matter of preference.

I know you like to work out. If you do protein shakes- splash a little real vanilla into the blender and see if you don't like it better.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the lesson, information, and tips. Mmmmm... vanilla is good! I always use more than a recipe calls for! I used to wear a cologne that smelled like vanilla. Jerry loved it! Ha ha ha... men and food!
Oregon Hugs.... Sue