- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004


By Tim Ecott

Grove, $24, 278 pages


Friends and relatives who’ve been on trips to exotic locales abroad have sometimes given me what they genuinely assume is a privileged gift, bottles of Mexican or Caribbean “vanilla.” The problem is that their thoughtful purchase wasn’t the pure vanilla they probably believed it to be but rather dilutions of cheap coumarin, vanilla adulterated with coumarin, or, even more deviously, synthetic vanillin and coumarin.

The odor of these is more hay-like than vanilla, and, when you consider that coumarin is banned by the FDA from foods and beverages because it can cause anemia, it’s not really a gift that I savor all that much. But today over 90% of vanilla-flavored foods contain artificial vanillin and not real vanilla at all, and some people don’t even know the difference.

But they do know that they love vanilla. BBC reporter Tim Ecott recounts the history of this longtime beloved flavoring in his “Vanlla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid,” bringing together geography, politics, economics, and science to tell a multilayered, intricate tale.

Science knows about 100 species of the Vanilla orchid. But only one, Vanillaplanifolia, has any real economic importance, although two other species, with slightly different scents, are cultivated and have their markets. Vanilla orchids aren’t corsage-type blossoms, but a vine from Mexico with tiny celadon-green flowers.

Vanilla has been a beloved flavoring in desserts for centuries, but as Mr. Ecott shows, it’s had other uses, too, and some of them surprising. The author relates, for example, how vanilla was regarded as a kind of Viagra: Famous lovers such as Casanova and Madame de Pompadour (and even the Marquis de Sade) made use of combinations of vanilla and chocolate as an aphrodisiac. Perhaps more impresssive, in 1762, a German physician, Bezaar Zimmerman, claimed that “No fewer than 342 impotent men, by drinking vanilla decoctions, have changed into astonishing lovers of at least as many women.”

Mr. Ecott traveled to Mexico, the Indian Ocean island Reunion (a French department), and the Republic of Malagasy (Madagascar) to research vanilla farmers, curers, and end users. Often, these are spur-of-the-moment meetings so characteristic of the very secret and hush-hush trade in vanilla.

He describes how natural pollination of the vanilla orchid, even in Mexico by a native species of bee, occurs only seldomly, and humans have to intervene with a toothpick-sized splinter, or else the flower dies and falls off, fruitless. And he follows with details on how vanilla is produced: The relatively scentless green vanilla beans are first steamed, then dried, and conditioned in storage for up to eight months, during which time the characteristic flavor develops.

Queen Elizabeth I of England gave early impetus to the popularity of recently-introduced (in her time) vanilla, by favoring it in the desserts she was served, according to Mr. Ecott. Others, too, played significant roles in the history of the flavoring. Edmond Albius, a slave on Reunion, to name but one, discovered the concept of arificial fertilization of the vanilla flower in 1841.

Apparently the first vanilla ice cream in the United States was made by none other than Thomas Jefferson in 1791, according to Mr. Ecott. Other developments followed: America’s first ice cream parlor came along in 1851, in Baltimore. Ice cream sodas made their appearance in 1874, ice cream sundaes in 1881, and the ice cream cone in 1896. Eskimo Pies are of more recent vintage, 1950. In today’s world, vanilla makes an appearance in Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, and flavored coffees, and in perfume, in addition to traditional desserts such as ice cream, custards, and cakes.

For this reviewer, the gem of this book is reading about the unpublished findings of Miguel Soto, a botanist who found fewer than 30 plants of V. planifolia which are truly wild. This means that almost all the cultivated vanilla plants in the world come from one specimen taken from Mexico in the 18th century that has since been propagated clonally by cuttings. That’s really low biodiversity and makes threats from diseases are very, very real.

Soto has never seen a seedling in the wild, further confirming V. planifolia as a clonal plant. He has also found a self-pollinating variety of vanilla orchid. Imagine the savings in labor costs from no longer requiring human intervention for pollination. To understand how amazing Soto’s discoveries are, recall that they were carried out in remote mountainous terrain loaded with bandits and drug traffickers.

Mr. Ecott also explores the field of aromachology — the name that has been given the science of aromatherapy. He reports that Dr. Alan Hirsch at Chicago’s Smell and Taste Foundation has found that vanilla odor has erotic potential, proving what Madame de Pompadour and the German physician Zimmerman already knew over 200 years ago. Weirdly, according to Dr. Hirsch’s research, pumpkin pie odor was found to be the most erotically effective aroma.

Indeed, as Mr. Ecott shows, vanilla has played a big role in perfume, from Shalimar by Guerlain in 1925 to Angel by Thierry Mugler in 1992. In 1994, Coty Benckiser debuted Vanilla Fields (which made $25 million in just four months), Vanilla Musk, and Raw Vanilla. Vanilla fragrance has also shown an upsurge in use in candles, where the fragrance has been promoted as “gender-free,” for both men and women.

Mr. Ecott’s mistakes in this book are minor: He refers, for example, to vanilla’s “five celadon petals,” when he should say three petaloid sepals and three petals, one of which is elaborated into a labellum or lip. But there are major gaps in the book. What about David B. Daugherty, a man some have called the “King of Vanilla,” but is missing from these pages. Also missing is any discussion of vanilla production in Indonesia or Puerto Rico or any mention of China’s investment in vanilla production since 1996.

Still, Mr. Ecott’s book is a good read because its first-person interviews and on-site reports give in the flavor of real-world intrigue. And he’s done his homework, bringing to bear the research and work of such experts on vanilla as Henry Todd, Bernard Champon, and others. Readers who go to this book expecting only a dry recounting of history and science will be disappointed. It is so much more than that.

Arthur Tucker, co-author of “The Big Book of Herbs,” is research professor and director of the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium, Delaware State University.

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