saturday spice: vanilla, little orchid bean

 previous saturday spices

cardamom [11/15/15] 

cloves [12/05/15]

ginger [1/16/16]


Running out of vanilla for a baker is the equivalent of running out of garlic for a cook. Or olive oil.

Or for those of you who still think I’m off my rocker, it’s the equivalent of your car running out of gas when the two nearest gas stations are both over 40 miles away (my car warns me when I have 40 miles left. Praise the Cube.)

Vanilla is the everything in baking. We use the term diminutively because it is so ubiquitous that, compared to most other sweet flavors, it is the least exotic thing we can think of.

This is why, when I ran out of vanilla extract a month ago, I went to THREE different stores (I would have made it five if I had known that the other two carried vanilla, though in retrospect it would not have made a lick of difference), to compare not only prices, but types of vanilla on offer, as well as sizes. Then I made a note on my phone, listing types of vanilla and stores in order of where I could get the most vanilla for the best price, without compromising quality.

Vanilla-2     Vanilla-3

I am that obsessive these days. Also, I’m budgeting.

Turns out, I can get a 32-ounce bottle of vanilla bean paste (it’s syrup made from the beans and the extract) at a specialty kitchen store that will last two years (translation: two months) and save about $0.30 per ounce. That’s 16 times the usual bottle size.

Most people probably wouldn’t go for such a large bottle. But my name is not Most People. It’s not even Most.



why is something liquid-y like vanilla being included in “saturday spice?”

I won’t go into detail in this post about the history of the word “spice,” but 1) my goal with this series was to explore the history of what we use to make our food, whether it’s the spicy buds and barks of South Asia, or the sweet, creamy beans from Mexico, and 2) I wanted to take a short vacation from sailing between India and Indonesia, so now we’re in Mexico.


thewoods-1     boozy_pecan_pie-11


[vanilla, vanilla planifolia/fragrans/tahitensis]

Vanilla beans come from an orchid native to central America, vanilla planifolia, which flowers only for one day and must either be pollinated by bee or hand, making cultivation of the plant labor intensive, and therefore making the pure vanilla beans among the most expensive spices in the world.


little sheath orchid

Fun fact, the word “vanilla” comes from the same Latin word that produced “vagina.” I wonder why…

When the Spanish invaded Mexico, they named the plant vainilla, “little pod,” a diminutive form of vaina, meaning “sheath.” The latter comes from Latin vagina, which meant “sheath or hull of a plant.”


lemonsugarcookies-12     sugarcookies-6 vegbananamuffins-4     cardamomshortbread-2


to the invaders, with love from the natives…not

The orchid, the only fruit-producing member of its floral family, was first discovered and cultivated by the Totonacs, native central/south Americans, who were later conquered by the Aztecs, and used medicinally. The natives relinquished control not only of their nation but also the vanilla to the Aztecs, but when Hernán Cortés arrived in the 16th century, it was then given up to the Spanish conquistadors.

It was the Aztecs who first used the bean for culinary purposes. Cortés saw them adding vanilla, called tlilxochitl in the native language, to their xocolatl (chocolate, also indigenous to the region), and in 1518, he brought the beans back to Europe. Unfortunately, for the crime of executing their emperor, Moctezuma, the Aztecs refused to teach the conquistadors how to cultivate the bean (among other things they probably refused to do, I’m sure.)

Because of the difficult cultivation methods and a symbiotic relationship between the orchid and the Melipona bee, for 300 years after Cortés, Spain held a monopoly on vanilla production and the beans couldn’t grow anywhere else in the world.

But all that changed when the fire nation attacked…I mean when a slave discovered how to pollinate the plant in Africa…


the slave who taught us how to pollinate vanilla

Kids are so bright. We have a 12-year-old slave, Edmond Albius, living on the French-owned island of Réunion, to thank for the vanilla we consume today.

Réunion is one of the five Bourbon Islands, east of the southern tip of Africa. The other four are Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoro, and Seychelles. When you see “Madagascar Bourbon” vanilla, it’s named after this region (as opposed to Mexican or Tahitian vanilla), and has nothing to do with the liquor.

In 1793, a plant had been smuggled from Mexico to Réunion, but without the Melipona bee, the beans of the plant suffered. In 1841, Edmond Albius discovered a method of hand-pollinating the orchid so that the beans grew in abundance, and shortly thereafter, plants were carried to Madagascar, where farmers learned how to space the flowers out to promote the growth of high quality beans.





Now the beans are grown all over the world, each region producing vanilla with different qualities (Tahitian vanilla, Madagascar bourbon vanilla, etc.), with Madagascar producing the highest quality and most consistent bean, and 75% of the world’s crop, and Mexico exporting only a small percentage of the global product.

Oh, how the tides have shifted to another beach house.


how do i use vanilla?

vegan snickerdoodles | | gluten-free brownies | | blondie bars | | ginger turmeric sugar cookies | | lemon sugar cookies | | basic sugar cookies | | vegan spiced banana nut muffins | | lemon whole wheat muffins | | cardamom brownies | | cardamom shortbread | | spiced, salted chocolate chocolate chip cookies


crème brulée | | custard cream | | choux pastries | | chocolate chip cookies | | vanilla ice cream | | vanilla café au lait | | vanilla cupcakes | | buttercream frosting | | vanilla olive oil cake | | linzer cookies | | seafood marinades | | scones | | French toast | | pancakes | | gelato | | soda


Later, we’ll look at regional varieties, the science of the plant, and its journey from Mexico to Africa, north to Europe, then back west to the United States. And perhaps in a few years, I’ll have learned how to make extract from the beans.

¡Hasta luego, mis amigos!

Nick P.



Chow, Kat. “When Vanilla was Brown and How We Came to See it as White.” 2014 Mar. 23.

Earthy DelightsA Brief History of Vanilla. 

Rupp, Rebecca. “The History of Vanilla.” National Geographic: The Plate. 2014 Oct. 23.

Ruud, Kirsten. “A Brief History of Vanilla.” 2009 Apr. 14. Vanilla Planifolia: A Food of the Gods, Now and Forever.

Schneider, Caitlin. “The Flavorful History of Vanilla.” 2015 Oct. 6. mental_floss.

Vanilla’s Origins. Nielsen-Massey Vanillas.


upcoming spices

ginger health benefits


the bourbon islands

Categories: food history, saturday spice