Friday, March 20, 2015


Vanilla orchid and dried vanilla fruit
Today, the term 'vanilla' often refers to something plain, uninteresting, and bland. Like the term 'vanilla sex' which usually means conventional sex...missionary position.

Vanilla is also applied to things like movies, books, and music...'That new movie was a bit vanilla...'

How did this happen? Where did we go wrong about vanilla...real vanilla?

Let's take a look at vanilla through history and culture.

The first people to cultivate vanilla were the Totonac people, who inhabit the East Coast of Mexico, in what is the present-day state of Veracruz.

According to Totonac mythology, Princess Xanat had been forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal she'd fallen in love with, so they fled into the forest to be together. They were ultimately captured and beheaded. In the place where their blood saturated the ground, the vine of the vanilla orchid is said to have sprouted.

The Totonaca loved their vanilla so much, they wore the beans in their hats and used it to perfume their homes. They used the oil from the drying vanilla beans to rub on their skin until their bodies glistened.

By the 15th century, Aztecs from the center highlands of Mexico conquered the Totonacs, and the Mayans, and assimilated some of their culture, including developing a taste for vanilla fruit...the long, dark pods. They called this fruit 'tlilxochitl'...the black flower...for the color the pod turns after it has matured and been picked for drying. Today we just call this fruit vanilla.

Vanilla, and other spices, including what the Mayans called cacao, or 'magic beans', were so valued, they were used as currency. When the Aztecs demanded tributes from subjugated people, those tributes came in the form of vanilla, cacao, and spices. Cacao and chocolatl have become what we know today as cocoa and chocolate.
Cacao and Vanilla used by the Aztecs

Back then, chocolatl was the drug of choice for royalty, nobility, and warrior. The Aztecs frowns on alcoholic beverages so preferred the magic qualities of the chocolatl drinks. Chocolatl was blended with vanilla and served after banquets, much like cigars and brandy are passed around after certain celebratory meals today.

In the curious medical beliefs of the time, chocolate was considered 'cold' and therefore good to calm the blood. Vanilla was considered 'hot' and considered to make one aggressive, as it heated the blood. Great for warriors! But used together with chocolate, it warmed the body and awakened the appendages, so to speak.

The Azteca Emperor Moctezuma ate frugally at the great events, but is said to have consumed as many as 50 cups of chocolatl, which is believed to have been the reason for his success with women. ;-)

Spaniards once described the vanilla chocolate drink as 'a drink for pigs' but soon got used to the flavor and it became a highly desirable beverage, believing the combination of chocolate and vanilla had aphrodisiac qualities.

Indeed, by 1762, German physician, Bezaar Zimmermann, wrote this in his 'On Experiences': 'No fewer than 342 impotent men, by drinking vanilla decoctions, had changed into astonishing lovers of at least as many women.'

This was in response to the French intellectual, Denis Dederot, who wrote on many topics including chocolate, suggesting it was good for you on its own, but it was the additional flavorings added to it that were bad...unless you were in an amorous mood. He warns: 'The pleasant scent and heightened taste it (vanilla) gives to chocolate has made it very popular, but long experience having taught us that it is extremely heating, its use has become less frequent, and people who prefer to care for their health rather than please their senses abstain completely.'

Translation: If you drink chocolate and vanilla, you'll become a randy old git :-)

Vanilla was thought to have been just an additive for chocolate until apothecary, Hugh Morgan, created chocolate-free, all-vanilla-flavored treats for Queen Elizabeth I, who adored them.

It was in 1780 that Thomas Jefferson, then living in Paris as the American Minister to France, created vanilla ice cream. The product was so successful that he sent the recipe to the Library of Congress where it's been preserved for all time. His vanilla ice cream recipe was to become the first ever recorded recipe, and only one of ten of his recipes that survive. Jefferson was said to have been quite the chef in his day, and even served vanilla ice cream to then sitting President, George Washington. Of course, we know that Jefferson himself went on to become the third American President, after John Adams.

While vanilla was beginning to be widely used in cookery, it wasn't until 1805 in her cookery book, The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, where she first suggested adding 'vanelas' to chocolate...sounds like she was reinventing the wheel!

Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife was published in 1824 and included her own recipe for vanilla ice cream. Mary was a relative by marriage to Thomas Jefferson, and her many ice cream recipes included Jefferson's. They must have had cookery as a shared interest.

By 1886, vanilla became an essential ingredient in soft drinks. Atlanta chemist, John S. Pemberton's Coca-Cola went on sale that year, advertised as an 'esteemed Brain tonic and Intellectual Beverage.' Vanilla Coke anyone?

Women dabbed vanilla behind their ears
Also in the late 19th century, Europeans, especially the French, used vanilla to scent their tobacco and snuff.

When vanilla extracts came into the public market around the same time, women used it as perfume to dab behind their ears and onto their wrists. The woman's own chemistry blended with the vanilla to create her own unique scent. Some suggest it was an effort of young women to attract husband's, because the aroma was similar to that of the kitchen and other homey pleasures.

Today, bakeries vent their kitchens as much to bring cool, fresh air into the hot confines, but also to draw customers by the scent of the vanilla used in the pastry. I think that's called subliminal advertising :-)

Mexico remained the chief producer of vanilla until around 1819 when French explorers discovered and started shipping the fruit to the islands of Réunion and Mauritius, hoping to produce vanilla there. Edmond Albius discovered how to pollinate the flowers by hand which enabled the plants to survive, and thrive, in foreign lands. It wasn't long before those plants were then shipped to other places like the Seychelles and Madagascar, with instructions on how to pollinate them. Over time, pollination was taken over in many countries by native wildlife, such as bees and even hummingbirds. By 1898, Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros Islands produced up to 80% of the world's total production of vanilla. Today, that figure is shared by Indonesia which cultivates the popular Bourbon vanilla production, and commands nearly 60% of the world's total vanilla production.

In 2000, vanilla prices spiked after devastating cyclones in East Asia. Due to lack of supply, the price of vanilla shot up to $500 per kilo (kilo equaling 2.2 pounds). But the market found a quick upsurge in supply as crops were recultivated, and by 2010, the price of vanilla dropped to an all-time low of $25 per kilo. This is typical of the supply and demand supply commands a high price while an abundance of supply sees a drop in price. By 2014, the market found some stability with prices fluctuating between $80-120 per kilo. Today, vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron, due to its highly labor intensive production.

The major reason vanilla remains in the second spot of most expensive spice comes down to the heavy use of synthetic vanilla called vanillin. Sort of like the chocolate industry's carob. Sort of tastes like vanilla but isn't.

So, just what is it about this mysterious fruit that keeps it in such demand for so many centuries?

It's not just the flavor that draws people to vanilla. It's a stunningly complex and subtle spice, containing approximately 250 to 500 different flavor and fragrance components.

Vanilla is sweet and innocent, yet complicated and exotic. Warmed, it's sultry and mysterious. It's a simple spice, yet its sophistication and deep history make it erotic and highly desirable. Vanilla is to spice what jasmine is to flowers. Anyone who's walked beside jasmine in full bloom on a sultry summer evening knows what I'm talking about. It's heady and alluring. Once inhaled, it goes straight to your senses. So it is with vanilla.

It's no wonder vanilla is one of the top scents used in today's commercial production of candles, air fresheners, body care, and perfumery.

Dr Alan Hirsch's experiments with spices
Why do real estate agents recommend homeowners bake cookies or sweet bread before leaving their home for a showing? Because the scent of warm vanilla draws in the potential buyer. Vanilla has become synonymous with the scents of home.

Neurologist Dr Alan Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago did a controlled study to better understand the connection between scent and sexual arousal.

Volunteers were asked to wear masks which were scented with different odors. His findings were quite interesting. He found that certain combinations of scents were highly effective in increasing penile blood flow in men. Some of these included: lavender with pumpkin pie, doughnut with black licorice, and doughnut with pumpkin pie.

All very interesting, but it was in older mean that one ingredient was most arousing -- Vanilla!

Today's scientists rediscovered what ancient civilizations already knew. It doesn't matter if you eat vanilla, drink vanilla, or just smell vanilla. It's potency is a big player in the field of aphrodisiacs.

Have you ever wanted to make your own real and pure vanilla extract but thought it was too complicated? This couldn't be farther from the truth.

Absolut Vodka comes in a
nifty bottle to use.
I recently made my own. Here's my recipe --

200ml, or about 6.5 ounces, of Absolut brand vodka.

3 bourbon vanilla pods (the label will say they're grown in Madagascar)


How to split a vanilla pod
Split the pods lengthwise first. DO NOT scrape out the seeds.

Bend the pods in half before putting them into the vodka bottle.

Screw the top back on and store in a cool place in your kitchen. Leave for at least two weeks before using.

That's it!

It should be strongly noted that the longer you let the beans cure, the stronger the vanilla flavor in the vodka and the richer the color. Just look at that whiskey color. It will darken the longer the beans cure.

Ideally, don't use it for the first two months. Then, instead of using the commercial stuff in your baking, use your own.

During the curing time, I checked on my beans, turning the bottle to circulate the flavors and help the seeds fall out of the pods. You can see them at the bottom of the bottle.

Leave the pods in the vodka. Don't take them out.

Before use, be sure to shake the bottle a little to get the seeds into your liquor for the signature vanilla speckled look in our cooking.

You can top of up the bottle with a little fresh vodka and occasionally add in a fresh bean and taking out an old one. Continuing to top up and add new beans creates a rich and flavorsome liquor that can be used in all of your baking, as well as a scent for homemade potpourri and perfume. And using extract from your initial batch means you can use the vanilla while it's curing, rather than having to start over when you've used the bottle completely.

And topping up means saving hundreds of dollars from buying commercial vanilla from the store.

And it's more affordable pure product than settling for 'cheap vanilla' which is flavored with synthetic vanillin which doesn't have any real vanilla in it.

So, now you know a little about vanilla...its history, its uses, and its mythology. And maybe now when you think of vanilla sex, you'll know it's not plain, uninteresting, and bland. In it's pure simplicity, vanilla is complicated and exotic, sultry and mysterious, subtly intoxicating and deeply sophisticated, erotic, and highly desirable.

Vanilla sex is complicated and exotic,
sultry and mysterious,
subtly intoxicating,
deeply sophisticated,
erotic and highly desirable.