We've all heard the phrase "plain vanilla" used to describe something that is ordinary, but there really is nothing ordinary about vanilla. The phrase is probably derived from the most common ice cream flavor, vanilla, of course. However, vanilla is actually one of the most complex and unusual flavorings in the world.
Vanilla comes from the seed pod of the vanilla orchid. The plant is a tall vine that is grown on trees or poles. The greatest production of vanilla pods in a given area comes from natural woodlands but most vanilla today is grown on plantations. Flowers are short-lived, lasting about one day, and they must be pollinated by hand anywhere but in their native lands. The bean pod then grows to a length of six inches or more and splits at the end when it is ripe.
Originally from the Gulf Coast of Mexico, the natives in that region first cultivated vanilla. It wasn't until the 1400's, shortly before the European discovery of the New World, that the use of vanilla spread from the isolated valleys where it was originally grown. When the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs of the Gulf Coast they developed a taste for vanilla and forced the Totonacs to pay their taxes and tributes to the Aztec Empire in vanilla beans.
In the early sixteenth century, not long after Columbus' discovery of the Americas, European explorers and conquerors brought knowledge of vanilla to Europe. Since natural vanilla pollination is completely dependent on a species of bee only found in the regions where it was traditionally grown it was nearly three hundred years before vanilla was produced anywhere but Mexico. After it was discovered that the flowers could be pollinated by hand vanilla production was started in the Southern Indian Ocean. By the end of the nineteenth century the majority of vanilla production came from the islands of Madagascar, Reunion and the Comoros.
The flavor of real vanilla comes from hundreds of different compounds found in the vanilla bean. Since the predominate flavor and aroma comes from a compound called vanillin, which can be artificially produced, artificial vanilla can approximate the flavor of real vanilla extract. However, the other compounds in vanilla beans ensure that nothing is quite the same as the actual product.
Vanilla is prepared in three different manners for use in food preparation. Whole pods can be added to cooking liquids and allowed to steep to extract the flavor and aroma. The maximum flavor can be obtained when the pods are split to get greater exposure of the seeds and flesh. Vanilla powder, or ground vanilla, can be used directly. The most common form of vanilla for food preparation, however, is vanilla extract. The extract is created by soaking vanilla beans in alcohol.
The next time you're enjoying a good quality ice cream made with real vanilla, stop a minute. Consider the background and history of this wonderful substance. Take a moment to savor the complexity of the flavoring. And think about whether there really is anything plain about it.