Friday, 10 July 2015

10/07/15 - Vanilla

I feel sorry for vanilla. It gets a really hard time from the media, from day-to-day chit-chat, in restaurants the world over, and in the ever-crackling twin guns of metaphor and simile. Vanilla? That’s a boring choice. The brainless default. The drab, beige option you only opt for if you can’t be arsed to think about it, or if there’s nothing else available. Out of rum ‘n’ raisin? Yeah, I guess I’ll have vanilla. You bought the new Coldplay album? Christ, that’s so vanilla. Every track on this radio station is just fucking vanilla. Vanilla vanilla vanilla.

It’s not fair, it really isn’t. Vanilla used to be such a revered and exciting little bean. It’s derived from orchids, no less, and there aren’t any more precious or delicate flowers than those. The word itself literally means ‘little pod’, and the cultivation of the fruits (or legumes, whatever) of these fancy orchids dates back to the Aztecs. It was the excitingly-named Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, 1st Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, who introduced vanilla to Europe in the 1520s – he also brought chocolate over, so perhaps that extravagant name is one worth remembering in case it comes up in a pub quiz – and he worked really hard to get it to take. Vanilla, as it turned out, just didn’t want to grow in Europe; it existed symbiotically in Mexico with its natural pollinator, the Melipona bee, and without those stripy little bastards the orchids were just shrugging like belligerent teenagers in a low-security newsagent. You want vanilla pods? Whatevs. Give me the Mexican bee cock and we’ll talk.

It wasn’t until 1837 that a Belgian botanist, Charles François Antoine Morren, figured out how to artificially pollinate the vanilla orchids, although his method was not financially viable on a mass scale; it took the ingenuity of a slave in the Réunion Island east of Madagascar to work out how to hand-pollinate them. We know his name – Edmond Albius – because history isn’t always a fucker to the impoverished; he was only 12 when he devised his vanilla pollination method, but it was so simple and effective (use a blade of grass to open the flap that separates the male anther from the female stigma, and smear the sticky pollen from the former over the latter with your thumb) that it’s still used today. Note his name down for that pub quiz too.

The cultivation of vanilla is so labour-intensive that it remains the second most expensive spice after saffron, that spangly yellow whore that nobody will admit they don’t actually have a functional use for, and it’s been a hugely popular ingredient for generations in cookery, perfume manufacture, and aromatherapy.

OK, so it stands to reason that, given the cost alone, most of the vanilla-flavoured things you happen across don’t actually have real vanilla in them. In fact, around 95% of vanilla-flavoured foods actually contain synthetic vanillin. This is generally derived from lignin, which is essentially a wood polymer, or guaiacol, which is commonly found in creosote and (weirdly) woodsmoke. It’s complex and convoluted, but basically these things can easily be manipulated to synthesise the unique flavour of the vanilla pod to a reasonably accurate degree – good enough for Tesco Value vanilla ice cream, at the very least.
This is why restaurants boast about having real vanilla in their vanilla-flavoured dishes. It’s actually quite a big deal.

So next time you pass over vanilla on the menu for something more chocolatey or caramely or what-have-you, just pause for a moment and consider how interesting vanilla is. It’s a rare and romantic thing, with every plant being hand-pollinated by a fastidious human. Sure, most of the vanilla things you’d have access to will contain synthesised vanillin rather than the real deal, but it’s more about the principle. Be nice to vanilla. It really shouldn’t be here. It’s great that it is. Stop associating it with Coldplay, nothing deserves that.

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