Vanilla beans, nature’s most versatile spice, are the most familiar to most people. Vanilla orchids grow in most of the tropics. They are soft and creamy- tasting fruits that are best added to items that require a creamy taste, like macaroni and cheese or creamy desserts like ice cream and crème caramel. But there is much more to the story of how vanilla beans came into being. The story is told in four different versions. In the version, the first appearance of vanilla was at the dinner table. The Portuguese had brought vanilla beans to their island and planted them as a crop.
The story goes that one day a few of the Portuguese emigres that visited went to the only kitchen in the town where they could get vanilla ice cream. Instead of vanilla beans, they found that there were now vanilla plants growing and harvesting. The sap of the vanilla plant liquid is used to make vanilla ice cream. Another story tells about a boy who made a deal with the Devil to become a devil and help him get his sweet soul. In this version he asked the Devil to give him his favorite flower, the vanilla plant.The Devil, in return for the boy’s promise to help him get his soul, took the blame for the act of molesting children and became known as justice angel. In yet another version, the boy asked the Walking apple tree to miraculously sprout while he was napping.
The Wondering apple tree promptly replied “It’s for you, buddy.” It’s easy to imagine the excitement of those first few weeks when man began to cultivate vanilla beans. It became a competitive activity, with men and women competing to see who could grow the most vanilla. This began long before the arrival of human slavery in America. The early plantations were small, houseby homes, where each would grow his or her own. It was a time of plenty, and each family worked their own land.
Water buffalo provided the animals with their water supply, and they lived like happy animals. Unlike today, each family had a homestead on their property. The homestead would be a site for social interaction, as well as for the planting and harvesting of most of the foods necessary to sustain life.
Early Benefits of Vanilla
Even before the varieties and different kinds of vanilla beans were developed, compounds were already being used to help combat scarcities in the 17th century. A English ship commander, Admiralicto Pompeii, also known as “the Pompeii dolphin” based in Port Royal, Trinidad, was so impressed with the health benefits of vanilla beans bought from the islands of Sardinia. In 1699, he recommended their consumption to Queen Elizabeth I and was himself an avid producer of vanilla.
The demand for vanilla increased dramatically in the late 18th and early 19th century, when it was known as the “great elixir of life and health.” The first major manufacturer of vanilla was theousseurier Louis Pasteur, who started out as a confectioner and swiftly moved on to become the primary force in the colonization of Canada. The vanilla plant is a small evergreen bush. It is usually grown on plants native to the island of Madagascar, but which grow well in the western United States, particularly in Central California. The vanilla plant grows from a cyme sedum, or sedum as it is called, and only contains vanillaquinoa.
Sedum species make a very bitter coffee similar to that of more popular species such as coffee and espresso. For most of the 20th century, fine vanilla beans were grown mainly in the mountains of the Western Cape of Good Hope. It is only recently that vanilla has been grown as a major crop in the Cape region.
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