Have you ever seen those bottles of saffron threads at the grocery store? It looks like there are about 5 or 6 threads in there and it costs almost triple of every spice on the rack. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice and, because of this, most people never actually experiment with it.
The funny thing is, the second most expensive spice is one of the most common – Vanilla. But, vanilla is so tasty and soothing that people don’t even care how much it costs. Vanilla has a rich, spicy flavor that can be used in Crème Brûlée, ice cream and if you combine it with butter it makes a fantastic topping for scallops. And, of course, vanilla pairs fantastically with tea.
But while it is delicious, vanilla has an interesting history.
Vanilla originates from Mexico
Europe was unaware of vanilla until the conquistador returned from his first voyage to the America’s. Upon discovering the new spice, Europe’s top botanists tried to replicate the plant that produces the vanilla bean. They failed miserably.
A 12-year-old slave solved a 300 year mystery
For 300 years, Europeans had their brightest botanists trying to figure out how to grow vanilla on their own continent. The main problem was that they needed a special bee (Melipona Bee) to cross pollinate the plants in order to produce the vanilla bean. This particular bee cannot exist outside Latin America.
In 1841, a French owned slave named Edmond Albius discovered a way to hand-pollinate the plants so they would produce vanilla. Once this happened, vanilla’s popularity exploded.
There are three types of vanilla
Due to Edmond Albius’ discovery, vanilla spread to three main parts of the world – Madagascar, Central America and the South Pacific. The following is a taste overview of each kind of vanilla:
This style of vanilla is the most popular variety in the world. The flavor actually has nothing to do with Bourbon. It was named so because it is grown on Bourbon Island (now Réunion Island) in the Indian Ocean off the East Coast of Africa.
Madagascar Vanilla has a creamy, sweet and velvety flavor that is commonly found in ice cream and Crème Brûlée. It is the sweetest and richest of all the vanillas.
Tahitian Vanilla is grown in the South Pacific. Its flavor is a bit fruitier, with notes of cherry and anise. You will find Tahitian Vanilla paired with fruit and combined with yogurt and sorbet.
The original varietal, Mexican Vanilla has a creamy and almost spicy flavor. It pairs fantastically with chocolate , cinnamon and other warm spices. Mexican Vanilla is also a staple in Mexican hot chocolate, which is a bit spicier than the style we are used to in the US.
While it is pricey, I think it is fair to say that vanilla is worth every penny. Some of my favorite tea blends and deserts revolve around this little spice. Luckily for us, there was a smart little kid in Madagascar who figured out a way to bring us all these different styles of vanilla. Without it, food would be so much more boring!