Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press


Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid

by Tim Ecott

“While the scientific information is plentiful, detailed and readable, as the title suggests it is a story of the author’s travels, his love affair with the exotic islands in the Indian Ocean from which vanilla comes, as well as the seductive story of the fruit. . . . Ecott’s books tells the story of vanilla, the flavoring, and the Vanilla orchid by nicely intertwining his personal interviews, evocative descriptions of the plant with social as well as natural history and scientific fact.” –Bonnie Walker, San Antonio Express-News

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date April 19, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4201-6
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

The fascinating, kaleidoscopic story of one of the world’s most exotic and sensual plants and how it transformed history

From the islands of Tahiti to the botanical gardens of London and Paris, Vanilla traces the story of the vanilla plant and its secretive trade, from the golden cups of Aztec emperors to the ice-cream dishes of U.S. presidents. Vanilla has mystified and tantalized man for centuries. The only orchid that produces an agriculturally valuable crop, vanilla can mask unpleasant tastes and smells, but also makes pleasant tastes stronger, smoother, and longer lasting. Because of its over four hundred separate flavor components, choosing premium- quality vanilla beans is as complex as judging the aroma and taste of fine wine. Vanilla finds its way into over half of all dessert products sold worldwide, from ice cream to chocolate mousse, as well as the finest perfumes, well-known brands of rum and vodka, and even Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

Americans consume more vanilla than anyone else on Earth–a fact that has helped drive the price of vanilla beans and flavor extracts to an all-time high, and forced growers and traders to mount armed guard over their plants in the tropical jungle. The traders who travel the world in search of America’s favorite flavor are a small and secretive elite.

From Papantla in Mexico – “the city that perfumed the world” – to the South Seas, Madagascar, and the Indian Ocean islands, Vanilla is a globe-trotting adventure that follows buccaneers, aristocrats, and gourmets, all in search of the ice cream orchid.

Tags History


Vanilla is a fascinating historical investigation with exotic travel thrown in. . . . where the interest never slackens.” –Conde Nast Traveller

“While the scientific information is plentiful, detailed and readable, as the title suggests it is a story of the author’s travels, his love affair with the exotic islands in the Indian Ocean from which vanilla comes, as well as the seductive story of the fruit. . . . Ecott’s books tells the story of vanilla, the flavoring, and the Vanilla orchid by nicely intertwining his personal interviews, evocative descriptions of the plant with social as well as natural history and scientific fact.” –Bonnie Walker, San Antonio Express-News

“Vanilla is the kaleidoscopic story of one of the world’s most exotic plants and how it transformed history. . . . From the islands of Tahiti to the botanical gardens of London and Paris, Ecott traces the story of the vanilla plant and its secretive trade, from the golden cups of Aztec emperors to the ice-cream dishes of U.S. presidents.” – Sir Read a Lot

“Lively, revealing, and enthusiastically recommended reading . . . should not be missed by any kitchen cook, gourmet diner, or botanist.” –Library Bookwatch

“Ecott’s fascinating book is equal parts botany lesson, travel writing, gourmet guide, and social commentary. . . . Offers rapturous and intoxicating descriptions of what can no longer be termed “plain old vanilla”. . . . A captivating look for vanilla aficionados especially, Vanilla lends spice to an oft-overlooked flavor.” –Liz Bryson, On the Town (MI)

“Precious commodities breed violence, and Tim Ecott, whose book recounts his travels to the principal growing sites of the vanilla orchid, needed the steel nerves of a war correspondent to cover this story. . . . Ecott’s fascinating travelogue makes it clear that the high price of natural vanilla extract is, by any measure, a bargain.” –Laurence A. Marschall, Natural History

“Offers a mix of history, science and travelogue in this fascinating micro-history of one of the world’s most exotic and sensual plants.” –National Dipper

Vanilla is a travel story, a cultural exploration and a mystery, the tale of man’s quest to taste manna from heaven here on earth – few writers can tell a story as well as Tim Ecott.” –Tony Parsons

“Well written and entertaining. Like the vine itself, Ecott’s story twists this way and that from its Mexican roots. He has done his research thoroughly, but his great strengths are the sense of place with which he invests his complex narrative, and the vividness with which he presents the characters he meets on the way.” –Sunday Telegraph (UK)

Vanilla is riveting, and will catch the imagination of the gastronomic traveller. People die, people cheat, fortunes are made and lost and Tim Ecott is there to tease out its meaning with a ready writing style, energetic research and wide reading.” –The Guardian (London)

“This book is riveting.” –New Statesman (UK)

“In Ecott’s hands, [vanilla’s] history and provenance reads like a novel. It has protagonists and antagonists, love and hate, blood lust, greed, trickery, bribery, and more than one brutal and bloody murder. . . . A fascinating tale, expertly told.” –Edmonton Journal

Vanilla is at once a travel memoir, a natural history and a biological detective story.” –Globe & Mail

“Tim Ecott’s book, like the essence of vanilla itself, is a potent concentrate of history, character and anecdote that tells the tale of a surprisingly exotic plant.” –Telegraph Travel (UK)


~ Black Flower

The vanilla plant is a tropical vine, which can reach a length of over one hundred feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest group of flowering plants – the orchids – currently known to contain over twenty-five thousand species, and count­ing. Of all the orchids, the vanilla family is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop, as distinct from orchids which are 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 flavour 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 labour-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 $~~~ a kilogram – inspiring growers to stand guard over their plants in the tropical jungle. Men carrying vanilla beans to market in Madagascar and Mexico have been murdered for a few kilos of their crop, and the handful of commercial buyers who control the world market are desperate to secure their lines of supply in the face of a world shortage of their commodity. In America and Europe the value of cured vanilla beans is so high that importers cannot afford to insure large stocks in their warehouses. One US importer has been forced to split his stock into three separate warehousing units several miles apart, because his insurance company was concerned that if an aeroplane were to crash onto one of the buildings it would wipe out the firm’s entire profit.

In Mexico, Indonesia, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea the buyers charter private jets to visit the vanilla areas, avoiding commercial flights so as to keep their destinations secret from other members of their small select club. Buyers also prefer private planes because they are carrying suitcases stuffed with cash – at the top of the market, a tonne of vanilla will cost almost half a million dollars. When they do fly on commercial aircraft these brokers often disguise their movements by taking an indirect route to where they want to do business.

There is one buyer based in France who always flies to Madagascar via an African country, rather than travelling direct from Paris. He is wary of meeting any of his competitors on the regular Paris–Antananarivo route and thus giving away his presence on the island. He knows that if he can sneak into the country and make a contract, or collect pricing information, just a day ahead of his rivals, it can give him a significant advantage. Even in Europe and the USA, the vanilla dealers are wary of admitting which city they may be travelling to – because large commercial food companies are often linked to one particular city. If one dealer knows that a competitor is visiting Zurich or Chicago, for example, he may deduce that a meeting with company X is taking place. The industrial flavour­ing companies also make the vanilla dealers sign stringent confidentiality agreements, making them promise never to reveal that vanilla is an ingredient in their products.

Rumours and counter-rumours spread fast. A few years ago the vanilla farmers on their isolated islands and forested hillsides were unaware of what was happening in the outside world, but now they have access to cell phones and affordable satellite connections. From one side of the world to the other they can now pass on information about the price of their crop, giving them an advantage over the foreign buyers who fly in from the developed world to negotiate a contract. Meanwhile, rumours fly around the globe by mobile telephone faster than any aeroplane.

On a sunny morning in Mayfair, in one of London’s smartest hotels I drank tea with a vanilla buyer. He had telephoned me the previous evening saying he had “important news’ that he wanted to share, something he didn’t want to discuss on the telephone. ‘do you know about the container load of beans that’s gone missing?” he asked as soon as I sat down. He had just arrived from America en route to Madagascar, and he wondered if I had already heard more details about the story.

“No, what container?”

The man’s eyes swivelled, scanning the room to see if anyone was within earshot. “Two tonnes,” he whispered, swearing me to secrecy about the name of the company involved. “But guess what? The insurance company won’t pay out – they’ve got satellite photos that prove the ship made an unscheduled stop and the containers were offloaded. Now the exporters are going to have to answer some tough questions.”

The story was a familiar one. Rumours about another exporter of vanilla trying to recoup a large amount of cash by illicit means. Such stories often have cash value. Speculators vie with one another to supply market intelligence to the industry, hoping either to drive up demand or discourage it, leaving them free to buy beans at a better price. A few weeks later a rival dealer telephoned with another story: a well-known middleman in Madagascar was buying cured beans at a very high price, equivalent to what they would fetch when they came to be exported.

“How will they make a profit?” I asked.

“Exactly!” he exclaimed. “Financially, these prices don’t make sense, but I have reason to believe that someone inside the exporting company is ripping the owners off. The insider is buying the beans at the export price, then he’s soaking the beans in water so that they gain weight. The exporter still makes a profit because he gets to sell more kilograms than he originally bought. But it’s high risk – if you add water you run the risk of the beans going mouldy.”

Like any cash commodity, the trade in vanilla sometimes attracts unscrupulous individuals who see an opportunity for quick profit. In recent years the high price of vanilla has made legitimate dealers especially wary of newcomers in case they might use this cash-rich business for money laundering. Drug smugglers have also tried using the heavily aromatic beans as a way of concealing their own merchandise to avoid detection by sniffer dogs. Sometimes, the business attracts simple old­fashioned fraudsters, and there was recently a case of a dealer in central America being swindled in Sri Lanka. The dealer had lodged several million dollars as a security deposit for beans only to find that his Sri Lankan contact had persuaded the bank to allow him to withdraw those funds for his own ends. It was all an elaborate confidence trick, and the “supplier” never had access to commercial quantities of beans. The price of good quality beans from Madagascar has even led one dealer to ship vanilla from Indonesia to Madagascar, unload it and then repackage the beans as Malagasy – so as to secure a higher price. By creating bills of lading that proved the beans came from Madagascar the dealer could shift the blame onto his Malagasy suppliers if any of his customers ever discovered that the vanilla was not what they had been expecting.

Unlike other agricultural crops the amount of vanilla beans available each year is comparatively small – approximately two thousand metric tonnes. Demand is so high that nothing is left unsold, and vanilla brokers often sign a contract to supply their customers with a year’s worth of beans in advance. As part of those contracts they may have to commit beans from next year’s crop without knowing how many tonnes of beans they will actually get in their hands. The quality and size of the crop depends on weather conditions and how well it is cured. Meanwhile, the price of vanilla depends on who is buying, how much competition there is, and how quickly the money changes hands. The potential for panic among the buyers is always there.

One crucial factor in vanilla dealing is this: vanilla farmers will only trade for cash. They sell their crop to local agents, buyers who work for the bigger businessmen who dry and cure the beans to sell for export. Foreign buyers, the brokers who search for vanilla on behalf of their customers in the USA and Europe, have to guess how much stock they will need in a given season. They also need to calculate how much green vanilla will be available in the coming season, a process that can only be learnt by years of experience in the field. From this, they estimate how much dried vanilla will come onto the market half a year later – and they must also guess how honest their local agents will be when the time comes to exchange the money for beans. This trade is not for the faint-hearted.

On my desk there is a small bamboo tube decorated with carved pictures of vanilla pods. Whenever I remove the lid the room is filled with the smell of Bourbon vanilla – the name given to the best quality crop in the world. Inside there is a mixture of pods grown on the islands of Réunion and Mada­gascar. Next to it lie two small gold-plated vanilla pods, a gift from a vanilla dealer in Tahiti. The golden pods are rigid, immobilized and petrified in their shining gilt coat, but the ridges on the surface of their flesh have been preserved. In a small box I also have vanilla-scented tea from Seychelles. My favourite treasure is a crocodile, about fifteen inches long, complete with open mouth, clawed feet and a fine tapering tail. It is made entirely from woven vanilla beans – perhaps a hundred or more – by an old man on the north-east coast of Madagascar. Finally, there is a strong-smelling bottle of vanilla liqueur on my desk. The name on the bottle says it is “sangre negra(black blood), and it comes from the state of Veracruz on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

In the country we now call Mexico, people were using vanilla long before any Europeans set foot on their land, and the dried pods were rare enough to be valued as a form of currency. Indeed, by ~~~~, when the Spanish conquistador Hernando Corte’s reached Mexico, the ruling Aztecs were demanding vanilla as tax from the people of the central and eastern tropical plateau. The Aztecs, like the Maya before them, knew that the black pods could be dried and ground up as flavouring for xocoatl, the bitter liquid made from cacao, which we know today as chocolate. It was a drink reserved for the aristocracy, or for soldiers about to go into battle.

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 xánat. The Totonac say that 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 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 Teniztli’s high priests to capture them.

Princess Tzacopontziza 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 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 Teniztli had ever known before. People believed that 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 as 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 flavouring, 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 as if not more than its military power, and Tenochtitlan was at the centre of a trade network which covered ~~~,~~~ square miles. Aztec traders known as pochteca acted as inform­ants, spies and intermediaries between the emperor and his allies, and they ensured the supply of riches to the capital, including treasured cocoa beans, vanilla pods, quetzal feathers, turquoise, gold and all manner of foodstuffs.

The pre-Columbian history of vanilla can be linked to the better known story of the cacao nut, another New World commodity which 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 two thousand years before the Spanish Conquest. The cacao nuts were originally transported as trade items from the Amazon basin northwards to Mexico, and the Aztecs always regarded them as sacred, knowing their stimulant and restorative properties. 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 (~~~~–~~~~ ~~) was turned into the royal delicacy. In the Aztec language, xocoatl means “bitter water”, and the concoction they drank was sweetened with honey in the absence of cane-sugar, which was introduced by the Spanish invaders. The Aztecs also added peppers, maize and vanilla, whipping it all up into a kind of gruel.

Bernal Diaz, a soldier and historian who accompanied Corte’s into the great city of Tenochtitlan, first described seeing Monte­zuma’s servants bringing him “a drink made from the cocoa plant, in cups of pure gold, which they said he took before visiting his wives’. According to Diaz the servants “brought a good fifty large jugs, all frothed up and they always served it with great reverence”. The Spanish soldiery, who soon found themselves at war with the Aztecs, became interested in what they called “the divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink enables a man to walk for a whole day without food.”

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, it 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.

On a featureless industrial estate in Illinois I could smell vanilla. It seemed to emanate from the very bricks of the modern office block in front of the Nielsen-Massey factory. Here, in the satellite town of Waukegan, an hour’s drive north of Chicago, millions of vanilla beans reach the final stage of their journey which begins in a rucksack on a collector’s back on the north­east coast of Madagascar. Picked by the farmer, bought by a collector and sold to a curer, they have been dipped, dried, sorted and bundled. Having been inspected and sold to an American exporter they are packed into gleaming white tin boxes. Loaded into forty-foot-long steel shipping containers they make a two-day voyage in a rusting cargo boat to the deepwater port at Toamasina where they are winched onto larger ships for a journey northwards through the Indian Ocean. Around the tip of Madagascar and past the Comoros they go, skirting the east coast of Africa and passing through the Suez Canal to reach the Mediterranean. After three weeks they reach the French port of Marseilles. Then on they go across the Atlantic in another ship for eight or nine more days, before docking at New York. They have travelled nine thousand nautical miles. Transported by truck to a warehouse in Pennsyl­vania they have been repacked, swapping their glittering and battered white tin boxes for cardboard cartons for the final eight-hundred-mile road journey to Waukegan. There, they are unpacked and processed by Nielsen-Massey Vanilla, the world’s largest company specializing in the production of pure vanilla extract.

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. Massey’s, as they were originally known, began making pure and imitation vanilla flavours a century ago and they continue to produce top-quality extract using highly traditional methods. Outside the factory I spotted two cars, one bearing the registration “VANILLA”, and beside it another which read “VANILA ~”. Inside, Craig Nielsen, a bear-like man with a deep voice and a bristling moustache, welcomed me to the plant.

“Those number plates are kinda” funny, aren’t they? My uncle even had one that said “”ESSENCE””,” he said, giving a high tinkling laugh at odds with his large frame. “I guess we were just lucky that in Illinois you need seven letters on your number plate!”

Craig made it clear that he could not reveal the names of any of the ice cream companies or other food firms to which he supplied vanilla extract. “I’ll show you the plant,” he said. “But our client list and the formula for vanilla extract are trade secrets.”

The factory was a clean bright space with dozens of cardboard cartons of vanilla beans piled into one corner. Craig led me over to a metal machine nearby.

“This is where it all starts. Basically this is a big version of a kitchen blender,” he said. “We feed the beans in here at this open funnel-top and they get torn up into shredded pieces.”

When he turned the machine on, it made a noise like a coffee grinder. I watched as he threw a handful of beans into the open maw and seconds later saw them drop down onto a metal tray. The glistening pods, so carefully packed and sorted by Malagasy women on the other side of the world, had been turned into dull brown shreds barely two inches long. “We chop them up so as to expose as much of the surface area as possible before we extract the flavour.”

Apart from the sound of the grinder, the factory was quiet with only a gentle humming sound in the background. A few workers clad in white overalls and protective hair nets moved silently between a row of steel tanks lined up along the other side of the open space. The tanks, like upended baby bottles, were big enough to hold a thousand gallons of liquid and they had narrow metal pipes stretching from the funnel at the base up their flanks and back in a loop to the top. One of the pipes had a transparent section through which I could see a trickle of brown liquid, like strong cold tea. On a wall nearby there was a computerized control panel no bigger than a television screen. Digital displays revealed code numbers relating to individual extraction mixtures which varied according to the strength of extract being produced.

‘don’t write any of those numbers down,” Craig admon­ished with another rattling giggle. “That’s where we enter the code numbers for the amount of alcohol that goes into the tanks.”

“Is that all there is to it?”

“Pretty much. You chop the beans, put them onto grilles that sit at the top of the tanks and percolate pure alcohol and water through them several times until you’ve got all the flavour out. We use a cold extraction method which means we take about three weeks to produce an extract; plenty of other companies do the same thing but they heat the alcohol to speed up the process.”

“Is that bad?” I asked.

“I can’t say it’s bad,” Craig replied cautiously. “But it changes the chemical reaction slightly and we think our method gives a purer extract. Some of the chemicals in vanilla are present in tiny quantities and it’s possible that they could change or lose some of their characteristics under heat – or pressure.”

“How much quicker could you extract the liquid if you used heat?”

“You could do it in three to five days, instead of three to five weeks. But we sell a premium-grade product, and our customers know they get reliable and consistent quality. We think that’s due to doin” it slow.”

Nielsen-Massey produces a wide range of different strengths and flavours of vanilla extract, and they also create specific and individual flavour blends according to customer needs. ‘sometimes they’ll send us ice cream or dry baked goods and ask us to match the flavour,” Craig explained as he led me to a partitioned area of the factory where colour-coded hoses were fed through the wall into the bottling area. Craig knew from the colour on the hose what strength or variety of extract was being pumped. The hoses looked exactly like those on a petrol pump, and there was a man using them to fill large plastic barrels which would feed the assembly line nearby. Stacked on massive racks around the walls were rows of barrels and larger square plastic “totes’ holding as much as ~~~ gallons apiece. On a little track, like a miniature baggage carousel, there were hundreds of glass bottles jiggling along in a line like toy soldiers. A nozzle descended from a machine and gave each bottle a blast of air to clean them of any dust particles. Pfsst, Pfsst, Pfsst it went, and then an automated piston-filler came down and squirted the rich brown extract into their necks. Little metal caps flipped down a track and plopped onto the bottles. They passed through a succession of rotating rubber wheels that tightened the caps by revolving in opposing directions. Inside each cap was a tamper-proof circle of silver paper that sealed onto the open neck as the cap tightened. Then another steel arm rotated and a label was glued to the bottle and more wheels smoothed it flat against the glass. A plastic safety seal covered the cap and the bottle passed through a heat tunnel to shrink the seal in place. A rotating table accumulated the bottles and scooped them into boxes two dozen at a time. Finally, a human being sealed the box and carried it to a waiting pallet.

The labels on the assembly line gave the brown liquid some glamour. There was Madagascar Bourbon, Royal Bourbon and Organic Bourbon. Mexican and Tahitian Pure, and Sugarless Bourbon. There were blends of Bourbon-Mexican, Bourbon­Tahitian and Bourbon-Indonesian and all in a variety of strengths. There were jars for whole beans, jars for vanilla powder and jars for vanilla bean paste.

“Why so many different varieties?” I asked.

“Vanilla is an application-driven product,” said Craig. “It depends on what you want to do with it. Take a cookie, for example: it has a very low mass so when you bake it the internal temperature rises very quickly. Madagascar Bourbon is the highest quality vanilla extract, but it doesn’t respond well to quick high heat. Indonesian on the other hand has a harsher aroma as an extract but it’s more heat-stable. And, as it heats up, the sharp Indonesian bite will mellow out in the cooking process.”

‘so what about ice cream – presumably because it’s cold you can use the Bourbon?”

“Not necessarily.” Craig pulled a face, realizing how little I knew about the food industry. “Good ice cream products have a high butter-fat content, maybe fourteen per cent. The mixture is very creamy and the Bourbon notes compete with it and get masked. Again, if you mix Bourbon and Indonesian you get the harsher notes cutting through the butter-fat but as the taste swirls around your mouth you still get the Bourbon notes rounding out the flavour. That means you get an initial “”vanilla”” impact but you can also still taste it at the end.”

As we left the production line I spotted a large barrel full of brown dust. Craig said it was the waste matter from the extraction tanks. “Can you do anything with it?” I wondered.

‘some companies use it to add a bit of extra bulk to vanilla powder – but basically there’s hardly any flavour left in it. We do have a customer who mixes it in with wood adhesive as a binding agent, and someone who uses it as a base for deer scent for hunters – they rub it on their hands so the deer can’t smell them. You can also add it to the strong solvents they use in rubber factories – that stuff really stinks, and this gets rid of the bad smell.”

“What about the actual vanilla seeds?” I could see millions of them in the waste material. Craig hesitated for a moment before answering. “You know, after the beans have had the flavour extracted the seeds have no taste to them at all.”

“But I’ve seen them – those little dark specks you get in vanilla ice cream.”

“That’s just cosmetic – we sift them out of this stuff and dry them, but the flavour has been exhausted. If our customers choose to add them to ice cream then that’s their business. It’s just a marketing thing; sometimes they don’t use the seeds, just tiny specks of exhausted beans.”

In his office Craig had a collection of old papers and photo­graphs dating back to the ~~~~s and ~~~~s. I was interested to learn that his grandfather Chatfield had been involved in the business since the First World War. The Nielsens had become something of a vanilla dynasty, and Craig’s father (Chat “Junior”) had once set up his own vanilla curing operation in Mexico. “Take a look through this stuff if you like,” said Craig, excusing himself to go back to work. ‘see if there’s anything interesting in those boxes – I never have the time to sort through them.”

The boxes were full of photographs and company memora­bilia, much of it publicity-related material from recent years. Among other things, I learned that Nielsen-Massey supplied vanilla essence to the US team at the world pastry champion­ships. According to one news clipping the American team’s ‘sugar work was unparalleled in the world, and their chocolate showpieces have revolutionized the art form”. There were old advertisements and company accounts, paperwork from the ~~~~s that was already beginning to look antique because it had been produced on a typewriter. I found a postcard from Chat “Junior” written in ~~~~ and posted to his wife from Mexico. He apologized for the delay in returning home to Illinois: “Having trouble getting sun to dry the beans. Waited around all morning for the sun to come out and didn’t come, so hope to God it comes tomorrow.” There was also a postcard from Papeete showing wooden schooners alongside the town wharf, a faded image from the ~~~~s that seemed impossibly romantic. In another box there was a patriotic advertisement showing US airmen in Saigon from the ~~~s holding up a sign saying: “To the customers of Nielsen-Massey vanilla many thanks and merry Xmas from the USOand Servicemen in Viet-Nam.”

Later, when I was about to leave, Craig took me back to the assembly line, saying he had forgotten to show me something special. “Look up there,” he said proudly, pointing to a high metal rack.

“That’s a ten-gallon oak barrel. We laid it down in ~~~~ and we’ll open it up in ~~~~ and distribute it to our customers to celebrate our centenary.”

“Why only ten gallons?” I asked.

“Hey,” he snorted loudly. “At today’s prices, ten gallons of vanilla is plenty to leave sitting around!”

The scent and flavour of vanilla is a complex thing. Food scientists use a bewildering variety of words to describe its sensory qualities, an evocative list similar to the vocabulary used by connoisseurs of fine wine. It includes: sweet, floral, balsamic, woody, nutty, marshmallow, leathery, dusty, smoky, strawy, spicy, animalic, walnut, cheesy, fatty, creamy, phe­nolic, pruney, rummy, medicinal, weedy, cherry-like, anisic, bacon, cucumber, mushroomy, plastic, cardboard and faecal. This complexity is explained by the fact that chemists have identified more than four hundred different components within the natural vanilla bean. The beans contain protein, sugars, cellulose, wax, resin, gum, tannins and minerals. They also harbour dozens of hydrocarbons, alcohols, carbonyls (aldehydes and ketones), acids, esters, terpenoids, lactones, sulphur com­pounds, acetals, ethers, phenols, furans and epoxides.

Some of these elements are present in only parts per million, or even parts per billion, but advocates of natural vanilla argue that the sum of the parts is immeasurably greater than the whole. It is hardly surprising that vanilla, and its essence, is one of the most intriguing materials available to flavourists and parfumiers.

The extraction of flavour from vanilla beans is a relatively simple process, even if it varies slightly from factory to factory. The beans release their flavour through percolation and soaking with alcohol and water, and are then filtered and concentrated into various strengths. However, the amount of beans used to make vanilla extract is regulated by law – in the USA under the auspices of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and by similar national regulations in Europe.

The recent historic price rise in vanilla beans has thrown vanilla buyers, extractors and flavourists into a frenzy. They argue that in spite of the European and American regulations defining the standards for pure vanilla extract they face a crisis. Quite simply, they say, industrial users are abandoning natural vanilla for cheaper synthetic alternatives. Some industry insiders estimate that in the last four years the price rises have resulted in a ~~ per cent drop in the use of natural vanilla worldwide. With prices for the ~~~~ crop nudging $~~ a kilogram there are few industrial users who haven’t considered abandoning natural vanilla. Ironically, the market for gourmet-grade whole vanilla beans is on the increase, especially in Europe where high-quality food ingredients have been popularized by numer­ous “celebrity” chefs and their television programmes.

It is a harsh reality that the volume of processed foods produced in the world is too great to be satisfied by the two thousand tonnes (at best) of natural vanilla available each year. For several decades, almost ~~ per cent of the “vanilla flavour” 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, mint and asparagus as well as in rum and whisky. 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 ~~~~ the American flavour manufacturer Joseph Burnett wrote: “Let the chemist experiment over his tubes and phials as 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.

©2004 by Tim Ecott. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Author Q&A

Q: Your new book Vanilla is a fascinating microhistory of one of the world’s most exotic and sensual plants. It’s a compelling combination of history and travelogue that required extensive research and travel. What inspired you to write Vanilla?

A: I’ve been a regular visitor to the Indian Ocean islands for over fifteen years, and kept coming across snippets of information about the history of the plant. Then I was on assignment in Mexico and learned that the Aztecs were among the first people to use vanilla. I also lived in Seychelles and met some old planters who told me how valuable the crop had been there, and what a labour intensive production process is involved in getting the “beans” or “pods” that we use in flavouring. I was captivated by the idea of this orchid that had traveled all over the tropics and thrived in places that I have always felt were impossibly romantic in their own right.

Q: Conservation has played a critical role in the history of vanilla, and continues to play a crucial role in its future. In fact, vanilla is endangered in the wild. What makes this orchid so difficult to nurture?

A: The vanilla vine will grow fairly easily in the tropics under the right conditions. Getting it to flower, and then fruit is much more difficult, and wild vanilla vines are very thinly spread through the thick forests of central America. Botanists estimate that wild vines reproduce rarely – and only when the right insect (a bee) comes along and then finds its way to another orchid. The wild specimens have been plucked from the forest by man for hundreds of years, so that very few genuinely wild specimens remain. It’s also likely that every Vanilla planifolia plant in cultivation is descended from just one plant that flowered in London in 1807. In conservation terms, vanilla thrives best under natural conditions – it loves the shade of mature tropical forest and doesn’t do so well under regimented agricultural conditions. That’s good news in places like Indonesia and Madagascar, because it means production will stay in the hands of small scale farmers who know that the best vanilla grows where the rainforest is left pretty much undisturbed.

Q: You write that vanilla is the world’s most labor-intensive crop that is now more expensive to procure that at any other time in history. Why can’t modern agriculture methods be used to grow vanilla?

A: Partly because the vine loves natural shade, wind and specific humidity. It is expensive to plant enough land with the right soil and weather conditions to keep the vines healthy. Also – because it grows in some of the world’s poorest countries it is always subject to theft. Vanilla farmers generally only grow enough that they can keep it under close watch – and if you start planting hundreds of acres you end up spending more on security and guards than the crop is worth.

Q: The cultivation of vanilla has a long of history of secrecy, from its earliest origins in the jungles of Central America, to present-day growers in the fields of Madagascar, Indonesia and Tahiti. Why all the secrecy and what’s the connection to Coca-Cola?

A: All industrial food manufacturers are obsessed with secrecy. But, it’s a widely believed theory in the vanilla world that when New Coke was launched in 1985 – and wasn’t popular – that the reason was that it had no real vanilla in it! Coca-Cola won’t discuss their ingredients of course, but its pretty certain that real Coke has vanilla in it. Pepsi list natural vanilla as an ingredient and vanilla traders reckon that the beverage giants account for about 10% of world vanilla consumption. There are just a handful of vanilla brokers and they like to keep their client lists a secret – just like the Spanish in the 17th Century didn’t want the British, French or Dutch finding out how to grow vanilla.

Q: Long hailed as a sweetener, energy-booster, and even an aphrodisiac, vanilla is found in everything from chili, perfume, paint and tires. What makes this tropical plant such a chameleon?

A: Vanilla beans contain over 400 separate chemical ingredients – artificial substitutes simply can’t do what real vanilla can. It smoothes out very sweet tastes – like ice-cream, but also softens very bitter tastes – that’s why it can be used to disguise ugly smells like rubber products and make unpleasant medicines taste palatable. One early American chemist called the vanilla bean “a veritable magic wallet wherein reposes a wealth of usefulness and delight.”