Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid by Tim Ecott Grove Press, 2004; $22.00
What may be the first American recipe for vanilla ice cream, written in the same hand that penned the Declaration of Independence, is among Thomas Jefferson's papers at the Library of Congress. The vanilla flavoring Jefferson used in his kitchen, made from the seedpods of a rare tropical orchid [see "Age and Beauty," by Kenneth M. Cameron, June 2004], had already been popular in Europe for nearly three centuries. The Aztecs showed the Spaniards how vanilla could sweeten their chocolate and perfume their cigars, and the long, dark vanilla beans became part of the Spanish empire's rich colonial trade as early as the middle of the sixteenth century.
Privateers from European nations were soon looking for the stuff during their raids of Spanish galleons, and their booty was directly responsible for Queen Elizabeth I's passion for vanilla-flavored desserts. By the end of the seventeenth century such influential Englishmen as Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren were frequenting coffeehouses where cocoa drinks, flavored with vanilla, were popular menu items. Starbucks, Haagen-Dazs, and the myriad of other food and drink purveyors that rely on vanilla today are thus the beneficiaries of a venerable and pleasant addiction.
The vanilla bean has been prized throughout its long history, not only for its flavor, but also for its great scarcity. Even today only about 2,200 metric tons of beans reach the world's agricultural markets each year, and the going price for the good stuff in 2004 was close to $275 a pound. Such precious commodities breed violence, and Tim Ecott, whose book recounts his travels to the principal growing sites of the vanilla orchid, needed the steel nerves of a war correspondent to cover this story.
Buyers for the major companies that trade in vanilla travel to remote jungle locations in Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea, chartering private planes under aliases to confuse competitors. They carry suitcases stuffed with millions of dollars in cash and visit wealthy growers whose warehouses are surrounded by razor wire and armed guards. …