Vanilla: A Gift From the Gods
Exotic, magical, aromatic, wonderful flavor; these are all characteristics that can be used to describe vanilla beans and vanilla extract.
What is the origin of vanilla? It is speculated that more than 1,000 years ago several tribes living in Mexico first discovered the magical qualities of the vanilla bean. Whether it was accidental or simply a serious discovery will always remain conjecture. What is known is that by the time the Spaniards invaded South America, the vanilla bean was entrenched in Aztec society. In fact Montezuma, the famed Aztec leader, was known to be fond of a drink called chocolati which was made from ground cocoa beans and corn then flavored with vanilla beans and honey. What is also known is that the vanilla beans were a rare commodity and in some cases were used as currency.
When vanilla was introduced to Europe by the early Spanish explorers it was quickly discovered that vanilla was a delicious and aromatic flavoring agent. The Europeans started manufacturing vanilla with chocolate as early as the mid-16th century. While the Spaniards started using vanilla as a flavoring agent, it was really the French who kicked it up a notch. By the 18th century they started using vanilla as a flavoring for chocolate, in confections and even to flavor tobacco.
While the original source for vanilla beans, Mexico, lasted up till the 18th century the Europeans were not able to cultivate the vanilla plant, a member of the orchid family, because they didn’t understand the pollinating process. Observations in the native growing areas enabled botanists to understand that the vanilla plants were pollinated by local insects. Armed with that knowledge botanists were able to transplant vanilla plants to grow in other tropical areas. The method of hand pollination, which by the way still exists to this day, was discovered by a former slave by the name of Edmond Albius on the French island of Reunion. His method was to take a thin stick and dip it into the male pollen and then transfer it to the female stigma inside the flower.
Vanilla beans have many uses in the culinary world. While most people think of vanilla beans as an ingredient for ice cream or other sweets, innovative chefs are now showing the world how versatile vanilla beans are. Vanilla beans can be used to make liqueurs at home. They are a wonderful ingredient for crepes, waffles, muffins and even breads. While usually not thought of as an ingredient in vegetable or even meat , fish and poultry dishes, vanilla beans (or vanilla extract) are a marvelous way to take these ingredients to new heights.
As a last point, imitation vanilla extract should be avoided at all costs. There is no substitute for quality vanilla extract made with water, alcohol and vanilla extractives. True vanilla extract has a rich perfumed smell, amber color and is totally free of any chemicals or sugar additives. This is the only vanilla extract we offer to our customers.