Do you like ice-cream? How about cake? Biscuits? What about chocolate? If you said no to all four, I’ll eat my hat!
All the above choices will possibly have one ingredient in them – and this ingredient is deemed the world’s most popular flavour – and aroma. Can you think what it is? It is also used in drinks and cosmetics. For an extra clue, it is the flavour of ‘plain’ ice-cream. The answer is vanilla.
If you’ve ever baked or cooked with raw vanilla (the actual pod rather than bottled vanilla essence), you may have been surprised what it looks like. The pods are akin to dried-up old twigs. Amazing to think that a beautiful smell is just waiting to emerge.
Vanilla comes from an orchid – particularly from flat-leaved vanilla, a Mexican species. It was introduced to Europe in the 1500s by Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés.
After numerous unsuccessful attempts to cultivate vanilla outside of Mexico, it was discovered in 1837, by botanist Charles Morren, that the problem was due to the relationship between the plant and its natural pollinator, the Melipona bee. Morren set about working on a method of artificially pollenating the plant. Whilst he succeeded, his method was financially unworkable and so wasn’t implemented. Coincidentally around the same time (1841), a 12-year-old slave called Edmond Albius, discovered that the plant could be hand-pollinated. Edmond’s method was quick and easy. His technique revolutionised the cultivation of vanilla and made it possible to grow the beans away from Mexico, without too much expense.
Surprisingly, despite its widespread use, vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron. There are alternatives, (one example being castoreum which is derived from beavers, which I wrote about recently) but they pale in comparison when it comes to smell/taste. For that reason, genuine vanilla remains a hugely popular product.
So next time you are enjoying a biscuit or piece of angel cake, remember to thank Edmond, the 12-year-old slave boy who made it possible! And, if you’re interested in the natural world then you might like our Nature quizzes. We have more than 60, and each of them is free to play. Have a go and test your natural history knowledge today. Who knows what natural wonders are just waiting to be discovered at the click of a mouse!