Posted by: ktzefr | August 7, 2010

Loving Vanilla, Butterflies, and Fridays…

After going out for a double scoop of my favorite mixed gelato — half hazelnut/half pistachio — I started thinking about ice cream past and present.  When I was growing up I almost always had plain vanilla.  The Custard Shop in my hometown in Kentucky had wonderful frozen custard.  It was one of those old fashioned shops where the waitress lifted a little window and took the order.  I liked to watch the custard pour out of the machine and swirl in soft layers around the cone.  It was thick and sweet and creamy.  They don’t make ice cream like that anymore.  Or maybe they do.  Maybe everything  just seems more exotic — bigger, better, more beautiful — in hindsight.

I remember an old man in the community who came to our grocery store regularly to buy bottles of vanilla flavoring.  Neighbors made remarks…he was drinking it, he was going to kill himself, there ought to be a law, etc.  He bought liquor when he could afford it and flavoring when he couldn’t.  By allowing him to buy it (what could one do, really?) were we contributing to his alcoholism?  Actually, it’s nothing short of amazing the stuff we “contribute to” in one way or another, mostly without even knowing.  Consider…

More than half the world’s vanilla beans end up in the US.  Farmers in some countries are not even permitted by law to take vanilla beans to market after dark.  Every year many growers are murdered enroute and sometimes for only a handful of beans.  Importers in the US and Europe have difficulties, too.  They often have to store their beans in several warehouses as they cannot afford the high insurance rates to put all the beans under one roof.  Buyers from big companies charter private jets or they  travel a round-about way to the vanilla-growing areas of the world so competitors won’t know their destinations.  It’s dog-eat-dog in the vanilla world.


A few vanilla facts and a rumor…

Vanilla: Madagascar Bourbon

— Vanilla comes from a tiny white orchid that grows on a vine that can reach over one hundred feet in length.  It’s grown in countries that lie from the Equator to the Tropic of Capricorn — Mexico, Madagascar, Indonesia, Mauritius, the Comoros….  There are more than a hundred different species of the little orchid and they all produce fruit and bear seeds, but almost all of our vanilla comes from one species: Vanilla planifolia.  This flower is indigenous to Central America and especially grows wild in the south-eastern part of Mexico.

— The people of Mexico were using vanilla long before the Europeans came to the New World.  It was added to chocolate, a drink of the Aztec aristocracy.  Vanilla is still added to chocolate.

— Because of vanilla, Mexico City used to be known as “the city that perfumed the world.” Eventually the little flower was replaced by big oil as Mexico’s big export.

— Vanilla is an ingredient in the world’s most popular soft drinks — Coca Cola and Pepsi.  There is a rumor that when New Coke came on the market in the 80s it lacked vanilla and was a way for the company to save millions.  But people didn’t buy it.  So, Coke had to bring back the old recipe, with the vanilla, in Classic Coke (and subsequently buy back at a much higher price the vanilla they’d sold off when they didn’t think they needed it anymore).  Just a rumor, but…

— Vanilla is one of the most versatile food ingredients in the world.  It’s used in cakes, cookies, pies, cereals, soft drinks, chewing gum, dairy products, deodorant, candies, perfumes, and many other products.

— Each year more than 1.25 billion individual ice cream products are sold in the US (this is about 22 litres of ice cream for every person).  Vanilla remains the most popular flavor, accounting for about 1/3 of these sales.

— Thomas Jefferson had his own recipe for vanilla ice cream.  It was thought to be the first in America and is among his papers stored at the Library of Congress.

— The flower itself doesn’t have much of a fragrance and the fruit (pods/beans) it bears must be harvested, dried, and cured in a very precise manner in order to get quality vanilla with that wonderfully exotic taste.

— The vanilla bean or pod is the only edible fruit-bearing orchid; each flower opens only one day a year and must be hand pollinated.

— Is the vanilla ice cream with the little black specks (vanilla beans) better?  Not necessarily.  After the beans have had the flavor extracted from them for the ice cream, the seeds have no taste.  They’ve just been chopped to bits and added for looks.

— The amount of beans used to make vanilla extract is regulated by law (the FDA in the US).

–There are only about 2,000 tons of natural vanilla available each year.  About 90% of the actual vanilla flavor in most foods comes from synthetic vanillin.  For more than 100 years chemists have been trying to duplicate the flavor of real vanilla.  Hasn’t happened.  There’s still nothing quite like the real thing!

Hint: In general, the more expensive the product, the more likely you’re getting real vanilla.   The best quality crop in the world?  Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar.  Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Inc. has the real deal.  Buy the beans, rather than the liquid, for the best, natural flavor.


…and I promised butterflies!  Yesterday we had three afternoon storms.  The first had rolling thunder and long streaks of lightening, the second was just a torrential downpour, and the third started with a few wild gusts of wind and then simmered down to a drizzle.  In between the cloud activity the birds came to the feeders and the squirrels came looking for peanuts.  Before it all started, however, I got this shot of a butterfly on the purple flowers of the butterfly bush.

…and it’s Friday!  What’s not to like about Friday?  Have a great weekend wherever you are, whatever you do…

***Many of the above facts and info about vanilla came from Tim Ecott’s fabulously interesting read — Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid.  It’s been called a mix of “botany lesson, travel writing, gourmet guide, and social commentary.”  I might add that it’s also packed with many really good stories!



  1. Great post, Katie. Isn’t it interesting that this exotic, fragile and storied flower has been eponymized to mean “mediocre”? I once gave my brother a hard time for always getting vanilla at Baskin Robbins and he set me straight.

    But I still go for butter brickle.

    • Thanks, Kurtis…I do love the vanilla custard of memory, but I’ve become a nutty (hazel and pistachio) gelato fan.

  2. Good and interesting facts on my favorite flavor and scent……thanks

    • Thanks for stopping by!

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