This is a little speech I wrote for Toastmasters. It’s about the totally awesome and unboring flavour of Vanilla.
A Speech by Alex Pressé
Boring, plain, ordinary, modest, simple, basic, and even disappointing. It is the most abundant odorant chemical in use today. Almost every perfume, confection, beverage, cosmetic and pharmaceutical contains this chemical.
4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde is methyl vanillin. That’s right, vanilla. A scent so common it has become synonymous with plain, boring, conventional. It is unexciting. Woop-tee-doo, vanilla!
Mr. Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests, I assure you, Vanilla is certainly not boring!
It all starts in the Totonacapan region of south Mexico, now present day Vera Cruz. According to ancient Totonaco Indian mythology, the Princess-God Xanat was forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal. The two of them fled to the forest but were soon captured and beheaded. At the ground where Xanat’s blood mixed with her lover’s, a tropical vine grew. This vine was the birth of a boring old plant: Vanilla Planifolia. Just another member of the largest flowering plant species, Orchids. But the only orchid of over 22 thousand species that produces an edible fruit. Ordinary?
During the fifteenth century, the Aztecs from central Mexico finally conquered the Totonac peoples and soon learned of the special fruit of the flowering vine. The other tribes were made to pay the Aztec kings with gold and corn. The Totonac people were forced to pay with the exotic fruit of the vine. It simply had a taste none could resist! Certainly not a disappointing or modest flavor!
Soon after however, the Aztecs met the Spaniards who promptly invaded and conquered all of Mexico. Upon examining the exotic vine, with it’s uniquely shaped flower and sensuously scented fruit, the clever Spanish explorers named it Vanilla. This clever name derives from the Spanish word Vainilla, another form of the word vaina which is the Spanish translation of a Latin word: Vagina. No, the Spanish knew this was no ordinary, boring, modest plant. This was a prized treasure of Mexico, even more amazing than the other exotic Aztec jewel: Cacao. Even today, Vanilla ice cream outsells the second best seller Chocolate three to one, due in no small part to how boring it tastes.
The Spanish brought their plunder of Vanilla pods and Cacao beans back home and presented it to their nobility. They mixed the two spices together to produce never-before experienced exotic beverages. For over eighty years, Vanilla and Cocoa were a treasured secret of the ultra-rich and royal.
They tried in vain to cultivate the plant, but could never get it grow where they planted the seeds. And where it did seldom grow, it would never produce the precious pods of exotic aroma and flavor.
Like most Orchids, the seeds cannot germinate without a special mycorrhizal fungus in the ground, which infects the seeds and gives them the critical amount of energy needed to germinate. This is why the plants would rarely grow where the Spanish planted them. And even when plants did grow, they never produced vanilla pods. You see, the flowers of this Orchid bloom independently, an orchid blooms one morning as the sun is coming up, and in the evening when the sun goes down the flower closes forever. If it has not been fertilized in these few hours, it withers and falls the next morning, never to produce the sought-after fruits.
The Spanish found that all their flowers fell off because the bees would not or could not pollinate them. Only in Mexico is there the Melipona bee, the only bee known with the ability to fertilize the flower of the only orchid to produce edible fruit.
And so cultivation efforts outside of Mexico failed, making Mexico the chief producer of Vanilla for 300 years until 1819 when a French 12 year old slave named Edmond Albius discovered a method to hand pollinate the precious flowers. Since then, the Melipona bee has been unemployed and the French developed huge plantations on Réunion island, then called Île Bourbon, east of Madagascar. After a few years, the Orchids were sent from Bourbon to Madagascar with instructions on how to pollinate them. By 1898, Madagascar, Bourbon and the Comoros islands were producing 80% of the world Vanilla harvest.
In all, the history of Vanilla is hardly boring.
Because each flower blossoms independently, plantations must be inspected every morning for new flowers to pollinate by hand. After 8-9 months, the pods suddenly ripen, but like the flowers they ripen independently and after a day are considered spoiled. Because of this, the plantations must be inspected continuously for ripening pods to harvest.
It is crucial to kill the pod after harvest to prevent it from spoiling and start the enzymatic process responsible for the exotic aroma. Freshly killed pods undergo a tedious 10 day sweating exercise of being wrapped in wool cloths and placed in the mid-day sun for one hour a day, after which they are returned to their wooden air-tight boxes.
After sweating, the pods are dried in the early morning sun and returned to wooden shelters when it gets too hot until their water weight is no more than 25%. After which, the pods are stored in sealed boxes for 3-5 months where the final fragrance develops.
It is after all this that the raw vanilla pods are ready for processing. As if the last 600 years wasn’t enough. No ordinary fruit demands this much effort, which is why raw vanilla is the second most expensive spice available today.
To produce real vanilla extract, the pods are macerated in neutral spirits for a day or more, then aged for several weeks. In fact, vanilla is a type of liqueur, legal minimum 35% alcohol by volume. Any less and it spoils.
Now I pose to you; how can a fruit so exotic, so demanding and so precious be synonymous with boring, ordinary, simple and unexciting?
Perhaps, it is because of artificial vanilla, produced from lignin, which is obtained from the waste product of pulp and paper mills. The end product of which is 4-Hydroxy-3-Methoxybenzaldehyde. A bitter nasty sinister chemical with little relation to the exotic bouquet of true vanilla.