Valentine’s Day is coming up and that means candy and other luscious goodies. Guess what spice they’ll use the most. If you said vanilla you would be correct. It’s the most expensive spice after saffron because it’s difficult to grow.
But where does vanilla come from?
The answer…80% of vanilla is produced in Madagascar. It’s an island southeast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. The soil and the climate are perfect growing conditions. Vanilla grows in pods which when picked turn black and shriveled. But oh what a taste and aroma.
It’s rumored that Thomas Jefferson was the first one to use as a flavoring in cooking. Whether he was the first to use it or not, vanilla quickly became the most popular spice in the U.S. Before that, the Totonac Indians of Mexico first cultivated the bean. They used it in rituals long before Columbus came to America. Then it was adopted by the Aztecs who introduced it to Cortez. Cortez brought it to Europe. So it’s been around a long time.
The C.F. Sauer Company in Richmond, Virginia has been selling vanilla since 1884 when C.F. Sauer who was a 17 year old pharmacy clerk noticed housewives by the droves bringing empty bottles to be filled with the flavoring extract. (Vanilla was sold in pharmacies back then because of the alcohol content. During the extraction process, the beans are chopped into small pieces, placed in baskets and then showered with pure grain alcohol. After several days, the liquid is drawn off and mixed with sugar and water to reduce the alcoholic content. Then it’s bottled and sold.)
Anyway, Mr. Sauer started his own business three years later in 1887 and delivered bottles of it by way of horse and buggy. It’s still going strong today and still run by the Sauer family. They import all of their vanilla beans from Madagascar.
Another large producer of the popular flavoring is McCormick. Twenty-five year old Willoughby McCormick formed the company in 1889. Every housewife is familiar with the McCormick brand.
In 2004, a kilo (approx. 2.2 pounds) of vanilla beans fetched $500. Interestingly, Coca Cola uses natural vanilla as a main ingredient along with its cola syrup. Can you imagine how rare it was to get vanilla on the American frontier? The ones who had thought it was priceless.
But, like everything else there are imitations. Most artificial vanilla contains vanillin which is a natural polymer found in wood. The imitation is cheaper but doesn’t come close to the real thing in taste or smell.