Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid

Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid

by Tim Ecott


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802142016
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/09/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 847,633
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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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 which 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 hot house 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 five hundred dollars 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 base.

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 movements secret from other members of their small select club. Buyers also prefer private planes because they are carrying suitcases stuffed with cash — and 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 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 middle-man 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 old-fashioned 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 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, immobilised 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 1519, when the Spanish conquistador Hernÿn Cortés 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 xa'nat. 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 the Goddess 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 the high priests of the King 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 in 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 Tenitzli 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 Indian's 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, if not more than on its military power, and Tenochtitlan was at the centre of a trade network which covered 125,000 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 a sacred plant, 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 (1200–1500 a.d.) was turned into the royal delicacy. In the Aztec language, xocoatl means 'bitter water', and the concoction they drank included honey which they used as sweetener in the absence of cane-sugar, which was introduced by the Spanish invaders. The Aztecs also added peppers, corn and vanilla whipping it all up with maize into a kind of gruel.

Bernal Diaz, a soldier and historian who accompanied Cortés 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.


Excerpted from "Vanilla"
by .
Copyright © 2004 Jim Ecott.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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.

Table of Contents

1 Black Flower,
2 An Indian Secret,
3 The City that Perfumed the World,
4 Mexican Money,
5 From an English Garden,
6 Ile Bourbon,
7 Creole Hearts,
8 The Slave's Crime,
9 Homage to Albius,
10 Empress of Tahiti,
11 Murder in Madagascar,
12 Ice Cream and Perfume,
13 The Admiral's Legacy,
14 Vanilla Prince,
Select Bibliography,

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Vanilla: Travels In Search of the Ice Cream Orchid 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous 5 months ago
If you ever want to know the history of vanilla, this is the book to read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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