Vanilla is one of the world’s most delicious flavors. It also happens to be one of the most complex and difficult to harvest. The vanilla orchid not only requires manual fertilization outside of its native swathe of Mexico but also has a long and complex drying process that lasts months. As a result, the vanilla bean is an incredibly expensive and desired substance. Tim Ecott journeys to all the places where vanilla is grown, interviewing farmers, buyers, and connoseuirs alongside his telling of the history of this intriguing flavor that is anything but boring.
Vanilla is actually one of my favorite flavors and I’ve been curious about it for a few months now. Last August I visited the Eden Project in Cornwall where they have a vanilla vine and a short description of the intensive process that is required just to get the flowers to bear fruit, then to cure and dry them for general consumption. This book definitely satisfied my curiosity and provided a totally readable and full account of everything I’d ever wanted to know about vanilla.
Tim Ecott’s background is in journalism; he worked for the BBC and his job took him to many of the places he wrote about in the book. It’s something of a travelogue as many of the world’s vacation hotspots are also great climates for the vanilla plant. He visits Mauritius, Reunion, Madagascar, Tahiti, and Mexico in his search for the background of this plant. I could tell straightaway he was a journalist because his interviews read like exactly that; he doesn’t excel quite so much at the narrative non-fiction. I think I was spoiled by The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. But regardless, the story he has to tell is vastly interesting and I was fascinated by the surprisingly complex politics that happen around vanilla growing, curing, and selling.
He doesn’t spare on the history; we learn all about how the Mexicans first used vanilla, how it made its way to Europe, and finally how Europeans transplanted it to their warmer island possessions. Ecott reveals the story of the first person to learn how to manually fertilize vanilla and the background on all the different varieties, plus the competition between genuine vanilla and artificial vanillin, which isn’t as good but is what you’ll find in cheaper vanilla-flavored products. Also, I never knew that Coca Cola had vanilla in it, but it seems that most cola soft drinks do. Just one interesting fact I’ll be taking away from this book.
One warning though, you’ll be intensely wanting vanilla ice cream throughout the book! Overall, I was thrilled that Tim Ecott made the provenance and current status of my favorite flavor into a great book. He’s proved that vanilla isn’t as boring as people claim, but actually has a rich history and complex chemistry that rivals any artificial taste out there. Vanilla would be a perfect read for anyone interested in food, especially desserts.
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While this book didn’t have any recipes in it, it was about a food!
I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.