Spell It: Discover the bittersweet history of vanilla – Gulf News

Considered to be one of the most complex flavours in existence, vanilla was once treasured
The next time you add some vanilla to your cake batter, pause and consider this beautifully nuanced spice – it has a long, complex history.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where you can find the word ‘vanilla’.
Vanilla emerges from only one variety of 25,000 species of orchids. Rare and unique, it’s considered to be one of the most complex flavours in existence, since it involves more than 200 flavour compounds. It holds the position of the second-most expensive spice in the world (saffron is first), and ever since it was first discovered, it’s been held in high esteem – for good reason.
Historians trace vanilla back to the 15th century, in the mountains of Mexico, where the Totonac tribe were the first civilisation known to cultivate vanilla pods. They used them for medicinal or ceremonial purposes, and believed the spice to be a gift from their deities. In Totonac legend, vanilla orchids first bloomed from the blood of a runaway deity and her forbidden mortal love – they were both captured and killed by the princess’s father.
But the Totonacs couldn’t keep the spice a secret for long. When the Aztecs conquered them, they forced them to give up their sacred spice. The Totonacs were taxed in the form of vanilla beans, and once the Aztecs got their hands on them, they learned that vanilla was incredibly delicious. They called it the ‘black flower’ because the orchid turned dark after maturing. And they combined it with cacao in a ceremonial beverage that they called xocolatl, which became the original hot chocolate.
The Aztecs became powerful with the precious flower at the centre of their dominion. But all that ended when Spanish explorers landed on their shores. The Aztec emperor Montezuma offered Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes a goblet of vanilla-infused hot xocolatl. Cortes relished it, took the recipe, understood the power of the delicate orchid, and proceeded to end Montezuma’s life and the reign of the Aztecs.
He took Mexican hot chocolate back to Europe, where vanilla played a starring role in a wide range of products, over the years, from perfumes in Great Britain to ice cream in the US. In fact, one of the founding fathers of America, Thomas Jefferson, was known to have added vanilla to his ice cream, and to have written down one of the earliest recipes for vanilla ice cream – it’s still there today, in the US Library of Congress.
However, one 12-year-old is responsible for the spread of the black flower across the globe. In Mexico, the pollination of vanilla orchids depended solely on bees, but when smugglers took vanilla vines out of the country, to the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, the plants failed to grow. But a 12-year-old slave by the name of Edmond Albius discovered that vanilla plants could be pollinated quickly by hand or a blade of grass. His revolutionary discovery and techniques are still used today, over 150 years later. It’s because the methods are so painstaking, and labour-intensive, that pure vanilla and pure vanilla extract are so expensive.
What do you think of the history of vanilla? Play today’s Spell It and tell us at games@gulfnews.com.

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