It’s boring yet exotic, subtle yet spicy.
Plastered with a reputation for plainness, a plant with a fairly short history of use is anything but. When studying vanilla, one discovers definitions that complement and clash when describing the world of this fairly ubiquitous taste. Its name even holds a dirty little secret.
When in 1519 Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes tossed back a cup of Aztec leader Moctezuma II’s famous hot chocolate concoction, flavored with aged black pods originally cultivated by the Totonac people in the presentday Mexican Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, he became the first European to sample the complex flavors of the only fruit-producing orchid variety out of the more than 20,000 known to mankind.
Despite a procurement process that included wiping out an entire civilization, Cortes returned home with this new flavoring. Amorously challenged Spanish sailors with ample time on their hands dubbed the plant vainilla, or “little sheath,” derived from the Latin word for vagina. The word vanilla wouldn’t enter the English language until a couple of decades before the United States’ Declaration of Independence — but a few grains of sand in the hourglass of human history.
Since a slave boy on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion discovered a way to hand-pollinate the orchid flowers that produce vanilla pods in 1841 — allowing for the spread of cultivation outside its native Mexico and the melipona bee that naturally pollinates it — vanilla has become a multi-billion dollar industry spanning the 20-degree band north and south of the equator with weather and terroir capable of producing the slow-ripening pods. Used in the past as a perfume agent for tobacco, an aphrodisiac and as a treatment for hysteria, fever and rheumatism, vanilla finds present-day popularity in aromatics and, of course, cooking.
“Vanilla is definitely one of the foundations of baking,” Kate Clyde of Boulder bakery Tee & Cakes says of the spice considered the second-most expensive in the world, after saffron. So expensive, in fact, that the vanilla bean powder they use for some of their topend recipes costs “around $200 for 16 ounces,” she says.
There are now two major types of vanilla cultivated around the world, albeit with numerous variations in degree of quality within each vein that make acquiring a definitive taste for the spice difficult. The most popular is Bourbon, the rich and robust standard-bearer dominated for centuries by the African island nation of Madagascar but recently encroached upon by other Indian Ocean islands, Indonesia and African mainland countries like Uganda. Bourbon vanilla is actually the same plant that is grown in Mexico, but Mexican vanilla differs in flavor due to growing conditions and differences in cultivation techniques, which results in earthy and spicy tones. Tahitian vanilla, which is mostly cultivated in Papua New Guinea, is sometimes favored by chefs for the fruity and floral tones provided by this weaker mutation of the original.
Dan Hayward, owner/operator of the Savory Spice Shop on Broadway, agrees with the sentiment that vanilla growing, while always somewhat of an art form, has moved into the realm of culinary nuance usually reserved for wines. Says Hayward, “There are 12 separate flavor profiles for vanilla — from almost a sharp taste all the way down to the sort of marshmallowy taste” that some people nonetheless get nostalgic for due to youthful days spent consuming cheap store-bought ice cream.
But how does vanilla get from the vine into your latte? Like coffee, the procurement of vanilla pods ready for consumer use is a labor-intensive journey that reaches the soil of some of the more poor and remote regions on earth. That’s where Fort Collins-based Custom Blending comes in with an encompassing business plan to haul truckloads of vanilla from halfway around the globe to process in-state for distribution throughout North America. Taking a different tack from that of the early Europeans, Custom Blending attempts to work on the ground level to make sure it garners the finest quality materials for its Rodelle line of vanilla products, while also recognizing those who make such a product possible in the first place.
“[The] average farmer or worker earns about a dollar a day,” says Joe Basta, partner at Custom Blending.
In Uganda, where the company uses about 40 percent of the country’s crop for its products, Basta says, “farmers who meet quality specifications can earn a 50 percent premium on their crop. We back it up with a number of social programs.”
Initiatives like water sanitation, AIDS education and malaria prevention campaigns can buoy the well-being of entire communities, while stove projects and reforestation processes can help extend individual lives that right now face an average age of mortality in the mid-40s. It sometimes means a premium on the products they sell, but it seems like a small price to pay for the sensual nectar provided by this finicky vine.
Basta and his crew at Custom Blending support a number of nongovernmental organizations and get their own boots on the ground when possible.
“Our philosophy is to work as locally as possible,” he says. The efforts, like a maturing vanilla pod, are finally beginning to bear signs of progress. “In Uganda we started with 650 farmers in 2005, and now we’re up to roughly 10,000 farmers. If you treat the farmer well, if you pay them well, and you support them, they’re going to take care of you.”
So while the story of vanilla begins with the decimation of an indigenous civilization at the hands of its invaders, companies like Custom Blending are working to square the circle of history by making lives in their producing regions a tad better. These people may be at the bottom of the supply chain, yet they are the ones who delicately handle each pod a dozen times or so before arrival on your local store shelf. Or as Basta puts it, “Profits make the world go ’round. Where you spend those profits is very important.”
Speaking of profits, artificial flavoring commands a huge share of the vanilla market in countries like the U.S., a cost-saving measure that strays from the ethos employed by many believers in a healthy lifestyle. Instead of incorporating the full robust palette of flavors that emerge from the nearly 400 complex compounds that exist organically within the pods, consumers have been led to believe that the one compound duplicated by artificial means is authentic.
Chances are you’ve walked into a room where someone uses vanilla for stress relief or relaxation and been instantly comforted by the familiar scent; or been lured to hide an extra scoop of ice cream under that layer of hot fudge. The next time you reach into the cupboard to grab the vanilla extract or taste the flecked filaments in your favorite baked trifle, remember the lengths that people have gone to make your taste buds sing. While not gold, silk or tea, it may be time that vanilla sheds the connotation of plainness associated with its name.