July is National Ice Cream month and July 23rd is National Vanilla Ice Cream Day. Some people might think vanilla ice cream is too boring to deserve its own day, but I don’t. When I was researching There’s No Ham in Hamburgers one of the most interesting things I learned was how vanilla is grown.
Native to Central America, vanilla was used by the Mayan over 1,500 years ago to flavor their foods and drink. When Spanish explorers discovered Mexico, vanilla was one of the many foods they took back to Europe with them. They tried to grow it, but their plants never produced the bean pods. Unfortunately, they didn’t think about taking the bees that pollinate the vanilla blossom with them and the European bees weren’t up to the task.
In 1841, Edmond Albius, an enslaved boy on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, discovered how to hand pollinate the blossoms. His discovery spread to nearby Madagascar which became the world’s number one producer of vanilla. But even after solving the missing bee problem, growing vanilla was incredibly difficult and tedious.
The vanilla bean grows on the orchid Vanilla planiflora. It takes a young plant four years to mature enough to produce it’s first blossom. That precious flower only blooms once a year for a few hours in the morning. In order for the blossom to develop into a bean pod, farmers have to hand pollinate it. The bean pod slowly grows to its full size in about six months. The farmers carefully harvest the pods by hand.
Then they drop the pods into hot water quickly to stop fermentation and put them in containers to sweat for a day or two. The next step of the process of curing the pods includes one or two weeks of alternating a sunbathing during the day and sweating in containers at night. After that, the heat is taken away, and the pods spend another month of drying in an airy room. By this time, the pods have turned from green to brown and are ready to be ground up and put in your ice cream, or birthday cake, or the nearly 18,000 other uses for it.
Because producing vanilla is so labor intensive, vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron. Real vanilla beans cost around $4 each or about $300 per pound!
But wait, you ask… If vanilla is that expensive, why doesn’t vanilla ice cream cost more than chocolate or strawberry? Good question. It’s because ice cream makers don’t use real vanilla. Over one hundred years ago, scientists figured out how to make vanillin (the main compound that produces the flavor and aroma) from other sources, sometimes from other natural sources and sometimes chemically.
You might also be wondering why saffron is even more expensive. That will have to wait till another day. I’m hankering for a bowl of vanilla ice cream right now.
Learn more about our favorite foods in There’s No Ham in Hamburgers