Vanilla-art - 10/3/16
"Vanilla" by Mistress Agnes deLanvallei.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
by Mistress Agnes deLanvallei
Vanilla is the only orchid used as a food. The plant is a climbing vine with long fleshy leaves and cream-colored flowers. It is native to Central and South America. It was an important ingredient in the preparation of chocolate eaten by the Aztecs. Chocolate was carried to Europe by the Spaniards. (1,4,7)
Vanilla "beans" are a big inflated pod around the seeds, which, as in all orchids, are tiny. The fruit takes about 9 months to mature. The mature pod smells and tastes nothing like vanilla until it has fermented. In production of vanilla today, pods are dried in the sun for up to 4 hours, then tightly wrapped in airtight boxes to sweat. This may be repeated daily for up to a month. Then they are dried indoors for a month and conditioned for another 3 months. (4, 7) Presumably the process 500 years ago relied more on finding fermented beans on the forest floor.
Vanilla was recognized as desirable early and plants were successfully transplanted to other tropical countries, such as Madagascar. However, no vanilla was produced. Again like many orchids, specific insects are needed to pollinate vanilla and without pollination it does not produce pods. It was not until the 1700s that botany advanced enough that people understood that pollination was needed. Now, in the successful vanilla producing countries outside of the Americas, the pollen is transferred between flowers by hand. The combination of the need to hand pollinate and the fermentation process is responsible for the high price of natural vanilla. (7)
Cortez and his men tasted vanilla, as an ingredient in chocolate, in Mexico. They or settlers in Cuba sent vanilla beans, as well as cocoa beans, chili peppers, indigo and cochineal dye, home to Spain, probably by 1510. (4,8) The first vanilla to arrive was described as a perfume and soon after as a flavoring. Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahaguin, who went to Mexico in 1529, popularized the use of vanilla (as tlilxochitl) in his Florentine Codex: general history of the things of New Spain, published in Spain in 1560. (4)
By the second half of the 16th century, vanilla was harvested, fermented and dried by the Indians in Spanish Central America in order to be used with chocolate in Europe. It was rare and although King Philip II of Spain drank chocolate every night, he had to accept rationing (4).
Chocolate became very popular in Spain and spread from there to the rest of Europe. That's why the name used in Europe, vainilla, is based on the Spanish word vaina, "pod". The Aztecs called it tlilxochitl. Francisco Hernandez of Spain spent 6 years from 1571 looking for medicinals in the New World. His studies included vanilla but his work was not published until 1651 (Rerum Medicarium Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus). (4)
The earliest use of vanilla alone is credited to Hugh Morgan, English pharmacist at the court of Elizabeth I who in 1602 tried it alone in candies. The Queen liked it and consumed a lot of vanilla (4,8). Wilson (9) reports that vanilla became popular in England in the late 17th century.
Looking for it in the herbals, I do not see it in Culpeper (1652) but he is writing mainly of medicinals grown in England (2). Gerard (last edition, 1633) tried to list all the plants and it does not seem to be there (6). It is likewise not in Fuchs' Great Herbal (1542) (5). However, the Codex Barberini, called the Badianus Manuscript, an Aztec herbal from 1552, in Latin, clearly describes it (3).
From an SCA standpoint, the beans, either as fermented pods or powdered fermented pods, were available for most of the 1500's, if you visited Mexico, the Caribbean or Peru or had access to suppliers of the King of Spain. Whether there was enough vanilla that any got past Spain to the low countries, Italy, Germany or England is unclear. Could you pay whatever the seller asked?
References (referred to by number above)
1 Coe, S. D. and M. D. Coe. 1996. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, NY. ISBN: 0500282293
2 Culpeper, J. (no date given but it's the 1652-3 edition reprinted) Culpeper's Complete herbal and English physician. W. Foulsham and Company, London. 0-572-002033 Online at http://www.med.yale.edu/library/historical/culpeper/culpeper.htm
3 Emmart, E. W. translator & editor. 1940. The Badianus Manuscript. (An Aztec herbal of 1552). Johns Hopkins Press. Baltimore.
4 Rain, P. Vanilla: nectar of the gods. pp. 35-46 In Foster, N. and L. S. Cordell. 1992. Chilies to chocolate. Food the Americas gave the world. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson. ISBN 0816513244 Highly recommended.
5 Fuchs, L. 1542 The great herbal of Leonhart Fuchs. F.G. Meyer, E.E. Trueblood, and J. L. Heller, editors, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA. 1999.ISBN 0804716315
6 Gerard, J. 1633. The herbal or general history of plants. Dover Publications, New York. (the first ed. of Gerard is online, but not indexed and so hard to use).
7 Simpson, B. B. and M. C. Orgazaly. 2001. Economic botany. 3rd ed. McGraw Hill, New York. ISBN 0072909382
8 Swain, J. O. 1991. The lore of spices. Crescent Books, NY ISBN 0517051745
9 Wilson, C.A. 1991. Food and drink in Britain. Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago. ISBN: 0897333640
Copyright 2010 by Holly Howarth. <sablegreyhound at hotmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.