Vanilla: Travels In Search of the Ice Cream Orchid

Vanilla: Travels In Search of the Ice Cream Orchid

by Tim Ecott

A thrilling journey from Mexico to Madagascar, Vanilla is the fascinating story of nature's most exotic and sensual plant and how it produces the world's most popular flavor. 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… See more details below


A thrilling journey from Mexico to Madagascar, Vanilla is the fascinating story of nature's most exotic and sensual plant and how it produces the world's most popular flavor. 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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publishers Weekly
There are more than 25,000 different species of orchids, but only one has agricultural as well as aesthetic value: the vanilla orchid. Its beans may be the planet's most valuable fruit, noteworthy since they're cultivated not for any particular nutritional value but simply for their flavor. Travel journalist Ecott traces vanilla's history from its Mexican origins. Mayan soldiers used to quaff vanilla-flavored drinks before battle, and once Cort s brought the bean back to Europe, Queen Elizabeth became hooked on vanilla pudding. Botanists couldn't figure out how to fertilize the plant outside its native soil, however, until 1841, when a slave in the French African colony of La R union showed his owner how to open the flower and press the right parts together. In a few decades, his discovery had made the island the largest producer of vanilla beans in the world. (Unfortunately, there are no maps to make this or other locations clear in readers' minds.) Ecott visits the island and its paltry memorial, along with several other outposts of the vanilla economy, from a Madagascar warehouse containing $100 million worth of beans to the California home of a self-styled "Vanilla Queen" who sells cookbooks. The transitions from historical background to contemporary travels work well enough, yet the story never quite makes the crucial jump from mildly interesting to riveting. 8-page insert, line drawings throughout. Agent, Natasha Fairweather. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Combining botany, history, travel writing, and social commentary, former BBC journalist Ecott chronicles not just any old orchid but the producer of a classic flavoring. In his travels to the major vanilla-growing regions of Mexico, Madagascar, R union, and Tahiti, he uncovers the laborious growing and curing process, the huge amounts of money paid for the beans, and the small profits that go to the farmers and sorters. While Ecott refrains from editorializing, the contrast between the world of the buyers and the dealers and that of the growers speaks for itself as does the violence that occasionally results. Ecott's fascinating descriptions of the secrecy surrounding the use of vanilla and the unusual characters involved in this world will intrigue readers who enjoyed Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. However, the topic may be a bit esoteric for smaller libraries on a strict budget: Ecott's thoroughly researched account goes back to pre-Aztec times. Recommended for larger public libraries. Erin Watson, Univ. of Saskatchewan Lib., Saskatoon Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.05(d)

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Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid
By Tim Ecott

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

ISBN: 0-8021-1775-9

Chapter One

On a featureless industrial estate in Illinois I could smell Bourbon vanilla. It seemed to emanate from the very bricks of the modern office block fronting the factory belonging to the Nielsen-Massey company. 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 began in a rucksack on a collector's back on the north east coast of Madagascar. Picked by the farmer, bought by a collector and sold to the Ramandraibe company they have been dipped, dried, sorted and bundled. Having been inspected and bought by Zink & Triest they were packed into their gleaming white tin boxes. Loaded into forty-foot long steel shipping containers they made the two day voyage in a rusting cargo boat to Toamasina before being lifted onto larger ships for a journey northwards through the Indian Ocean. Around the tip of Madagascar and past the Comoros they went, skirting the east coast of Africa and passing through the Suez Canal to reach the Mediterranean. After three weeks they reached Marseilles. Then onwards across the Atlantic in another ship they went, for eight or nine more days before docking at New York, having travelled nine thousand nautical miles. Transported by truck to Zink & Triest's 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 Vanillas, the world's largest company specialising 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 high 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 2'. Inside, Craig Nielsen, a bear-like man with a deep voice and a bristling moustache welcomed me to the plant.

"I'll show you the plant," Craig 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 as background noise. 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 computerised 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. Remember 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 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 produce 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 two hundred and seventy five 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.

The labels on the assembly line gave the brown liquid its glamour. There was Madagascar Bourbon, Royal Bourbon and Organic Bourbon. Mexican and Tahitian Pure, and Sugarless Bourbon. There were blends of Bourbon-Mexican, Bourbon-Tahitian 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 Bourbon?"

"Not necessarily," Craig pulled a face, realising how little I knew about the food industry. "Premium ice cream products have a high butter-fat content, maybe fourteen percent. 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."


Excerpted from Vanilla by Tim Ecott Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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