History of Vanilla

The vast legions of American ice cream-lovers fall basically into two camps: those who favor chocolate, and those who champion its chromatic antithesis, vanilla. Although vanilla and chocolate, long the most popular ice cream flavors in the United States, may be diametrically opposed on the color scale, they share more in common than you might imagine.

Both cocoa and vanilla come from a bean. Both are natives of Mexico and Central America. Both are used primarily as a confectionery flavoring. In fact, for many years chocolate and vanilla were not thought of as opposites at all, they were almost always used together!

When the Spanish explorer Cortes arrived at the court of the Aztec king Montezuma in 1519, the Aztecs offered their guests bowls of a frothy black liquid chilled with snow. Chocolate, which Cortes had already heard of, was the primary ingredient of the beverage; but Cortes learned through court gossip that the Aztecs sweetened their drink with a secret ingredient, an extract from a wild orchid called thilxochitl. The Spaniards dubbed the white bean of the orchid with a diminutive of the word vaina, vainilla, or “little pod.”

When cocoa from the New World reached Spain, vanilla came with it, for the two beans do have one important difference: chocolate in its unadulterated form is bitter tasting; vanilla is sweet. Wealthy Spaniards began enjoying a chocolate beverage sweetened with vanilla decades before coffee and tea became popular in Europe. The Spaniards guarded the secrets of their preparation for years, and it was almost a century before the two beans were widely enjoyed elsewhere in Europe.

Vanilla and chocolate reached France in 1660, when Maria Theresa of Spain arrived at the French court, with her maids and cooks, to become the bride of Louis XIV. The new queen enjoyed a vanilla-flavored chocolate beverage prepared by a maid each morning, and other members of the court were soon clamoring for vanilla. The clergy then decried the beverage as “provocative of immorality”, it was rumored that vanilla, like chocolate, was an aphrodisiac.

Queen Elizabeth of England, the owner of a notorious sweet tooth, was wont to fill her pockets with candies; she would nibble on the sweets throughout the day. Many of the candies were made from chocolate or from vanilla, or from a mixture of both. English confectioners vied to create new specialties to delight the queen, and one apothecary struck on the idea of using the juice of the vanilla bean as a flavoring for marchpane, almond paste. The occasion marked the first time that vanilla was used to flavor anything but chocolate, and Elizabeth loved the results.

By the late seventeenth century, chocolate was popular as a beverage throughout much of Europe, and chocolate houses, the forerunners of coffee houses, were common in many cities. But sugar gradually replaced vanilla as a sweetener for chocolate, and vanilla struck out on its own as a flavoring.

It wasn’t until 1836, however, that scientists found a way of growing vanilla outside Mexico. Charles Morren, a Belgian botanist, discovered that the vanilla plant was pollinated by the Melipone bee, a tiny insect that lives only in Mexico. Thus, the plant could not be naturally pollinated in other country. Morren found a method for artificially pollinating the plant, and vanilla plantations soon began appearing in many of France’s colonial possessions.

Rumor has it that Thomas Jefferson, credited with introducing spaghetti, french fries, and a number of other foods to America, was also the first to use vanilla as a flavoring agent. During the last 200 years, vanilla has become one of the most popular confectionery flavorings in the United States, and is now widely used in candies, baked goods, ice cream, carbonated beverages (cream soda is made from vanilla), sauces, and surprisingly, perfume.

The vanilla plant that the Aztecs harvested is the Vanilla planifolia, but another species native to Oceania is called, appropriately enough, Vanilla tahitensis. Vanilla is a climbing orchid that attaches itself to trees with aerial rootlets, though the plant does possess ordinary soil roots. The fruit, or pod, is long and thin, measuring from six to ten inches in length and a half inch in diameter. The pods of the best varieties are, strangely enough, chocolate-colored, and are flecked with a crystalline substance called givre, or vanillin, a fragrant chemical secreted by the pod lining that gives vanilla its characteristic flavor. Vanilla is unique among the twenty-thousand-odd species of orchid known throughout the world, for it is the only orchid that produces a commercially useful commodity.

Unripe vanilla is green; it turns yellow when ripe. Harvested vanilla beans are cured by immersion in hot water, stored for several months to develop the full bouquet. The beans are then shipped to factories for the production of vanilla extract. At the factory, the beans are first chopped, then steeped in a solvent to extract the vanilla essence. At some factories, the vanilla extract is aged for six months to a year before shipment to confectioners and retail stores.

Though a native of Mexico and Central America and a favorite flavoring in Europe and the United States, vanilla is today almost entirely a product of various Indian Ocean islands, where it was brought for plantation cultivation by French colonists. The Malagasy Republic (formerly Madagascar), Reunion, and the Comoro Islands now account for about 75 percent of the world’s vanilla supply. Quantities are also produced in Tahiti, Indonesia, Mexico, and the Seychelles Islands.

Artificial vanilla flavoring can be produced from the sapwood of fir trees; and vanilla flavoring, synthesized from chemicals, is becoming increasingly popular as the cost of the raw vanilla bean rises.

Now chocolate, too, is being synthetically produced; it’s possible that the dish of vanilla and chocolate ice cream you just enjoyed owned nothing to either bean. The next time you buy a vanilla or chocolate product, check the list of ingredients to find out if you were given the real McCoy, you’ll find it all printed there in black and white.