For most people, vanilla ice cream was a staple of childhood, the perfect accompaniment to a day on the beach or a treat from the ice-cream man on a hot day. But have you ever wondered where this traditional, ‘plain’ flavour actually comes from? |
The answer may be somewhat of a surprise, because despite appearing in a range of traditional British sweets and desserts rather than in exotic unusual confectionery, it actually comes from a plant which only grows in very specific tropical climes.
This is because the vanilla pod (the long brown shaft which is split open to reveal the paste containing tiny vanilla seeds) is actually part of a rare orchid which originated in Central and South America.
The History of Vanilla Cultivation
The V. planifolia orchid originally grew wild in South America and was used by local people as a medicine nad a spice for cooking. But when Europeans set out in ships to explore the New World, they discovered the delicious flavour gathered from the plant’s seed pods. French explorers were particularly taken by this new ‘spice’ and brought it back to Europe. At the time, vanilla would have been highly unusual. Confectionery, however, would prove to be vanilla’s natural niche.
The French fell in love with the flavour, using it not only in cooking but in perfumes, too. As demand in France grew for vanilla, the French tried to cultivate the V. planifolia orchid in some of its tropical colonies in the Indian Ocean – but with no success. Without the specific South American Melipona bees to pollinate the orchid, the plant failed to thrive.
Attempts to import the bees also failed. It was not until the middle of the 19th Century that a way to manually pollenate the orchid was discovered.
It is this process of hand-pollination that remains the only way to produce natural vanilla today. It is the intensity of the process of cultivating vanilla, which involves not only hand-pollination but also the years it takes for the orchids to reach maturity and produce its precious pods, which explains the spice’s high premium.
The French began to grow the vanilla orchid across their colonies in the Indian Ocean with Madagascar proving the best climate match for the plant. Today 75% of the vanilla sold is from Madagascar.
Uses for Vanilla
The warm, fragrant taste of vanilla is used as a base flavour for a range of sweet edibles from the very familiar ice cream and cakes to any number of more unusual confectionery delights. These tiny seeds have become a familiar note in our confectionery, from chocolate and fudge to truffles and marshmallows.
The next time you stop off for a vanilla ice cream on a cold day or bite into some vanilla fudge, take a moment to think about the intricate process which goes in to creating one of our all-time favourite flavours.
Angelina Moufftard works for hf Chocolates, established chocolate suppliers with decades of experience supplying unusual confectionery and high-end chocolates to retailers across the UK. Working with the most dedicated suppliers from France, Spain, Germany, Holland, Belgium, the USA and the UK, hf Chocolates' great tasting and beautifully packaged products add panache to any sweet display.
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