Ah, the small of vanilla - it conjures up sweet memories. No wonder it is used in everything from candles to aromatherapy to ice cream! Perhaps the most familiar spice, vanilla is also one of the worlds favorite and most expensive spices.
Vanilla comes from a plant that grows as a vine. It is actually a member of the orchid family1. The vine produces a long green fruit, which eventually becomes the vanilla bean we know and love. But getting these vanilla beans into your spice rack isnít easy which is, of course, reflected in the price.
The Vanilla planifolia is native to Mexico but now is grown throughout the tropics with the primary producers being Indonesia and Madagascar. The plant has both female and male parts, but they are separated so that self-pollination cannot happen naturally. In fact, the only way this flower can be pollinated is through a certain type of bee that is found in Mexico. Needless to say, this makes it rather difficult to pollinate in other places and the pollination must be done by hand.
To further complicate matters, the flowers bloom for less than 1 day. So workers must keep a constant vigil for opening flowers in order to pollinate them. Once pollinated, the bean starts to grow a few weeks later. The bean is left on the vine for 9 months, then cut down and dried in the sun for several weeks or month. After that it is set in a box to dehydrate and finally shipped to your supermarket with the whole process from pollination to shipment taking about 1 year!
But many say this spice is certainly worth the wait, and no doubt it is enjoyed as much today as vanilla was historically by the Aztecs back in the 15th century. While they were the first to actually consume it, the Aztecs were not the first cultivators, that distinction goes to the Totonac people who lived on the Gulf coast of Mexico and used the spice as a perfume and in rituals. The Aztecs, however brought the use of vanilla to a whole new level by combining it with cacoa in a drink they called Chocolatl.
This drink was given to Cortez when he came to Mexico in the 16th century and he then introduced it to Europe, starting a craze over chocolate, something Europeans had never had before! It wasnít until 1602 that the vanilla was appreciated for itís own taste and used as a flavoring all on itís own.
Today, vanilla is a staple in every kitchen pantry and used in many recipes. It has one of the most recognizable flavors and aromas, a spice most consider to be well worth the price and the wait to produce. Most spices and herbs are known for some particular beneficial health effect. But vanilla almost alone is prized mainly for its affect on the pallet, which says much for the brown liquid that flavors so much of the world's foods.
For a spice with such a rich history, strong flavors and aromas, it seems strange that vanilla should have become associated with the word "plain", in a manner to reflect the bland or ordinary. The idea of "plain vanilla" is a recent development (1970s) that comes from the fact that most ice cream is vanilla2. Its very popularity has served to make it seem ordinary. Whatever the case, it remains a popular flavor the world over.
2. Online Etymology Dictionary
InDepthInfo has more information about other herbs and spices.