Synopses & Reviews
From the Aztec Indians to Martha Stewart, vanilla has been synonymous with sweetening foods. Yet it's also in chili, perfume, paint, desserts, car tires, and soda. In Tim Ecott's Vanilla
, learn the fascinating history of the world's most sought-after flavoring.
Originally discovered by the Mayan Indians and gathered in the moist jungles of Central America, vanilla is the only edible fruit from the orchid family. Its cured beans are now produced most successfully in the faraway fields of Madagascar, Indonesia, and Tahiti. The plant was first brought to Europe by Hernando Cortés after his conquests in Mexico; Americans now consume more vanilla than anyone else on earth. The story of vanilla is a botanical mystery, a plant that traveled the world but would not bear fruit outside Mexico until a twelve-year-old African slave on an island figured out how to cultivate it.
Now endangered in the wild and the world's most labor-intensive agricultural crop, vanilla is more expensive to procure today than at any time in its history. Tim Ecott follows its journey from Mexico to Madagascar and back to America, meeting the farmers, the brokers, and the ice-cream makers who make vanilla a multimillion-dollar business. In the tradition of books like Tobacco, Tim Ecott's Vanilla is a whimsical journey that chronicles the incredible power of one velvety brown, long, and slender bean.
"There are more than 25,000 different species of orchids, but only one has agricultural as well as aesthetic value: the vanilla orchid. Its beans may be the planet's most valuable fruit, noteworthy since they're cultivated not for any particular nutritional value but simply for their flavor. Travel journalist Ecott traces vanilla's history from its Mexican origins. Mayan soldiers used to quaff vanilla-flavored drinks before battle, and once Corts brought the bean back to Europe, Queen Elizabeth became hooked on vanilla pudding. Botanists couldn't figure out how to fertilize the plant outside its native soil, however, until 1841, when a slave in the French African colony of La Runion showed his owner how to open the flower and press the right parts together. In a few decades, his discovery had made the island the largest producer of vanilla beans in the world. (Unfortunately, there are no maps to make this or other locations clear in readers' minds.) Ecott visits the island and its paltry memorial, along with several other outposts of the vanilla economy, from a Madagascar warehouse containing $100 million worth of beans to the California home of a self-styled 'Vanilla Queen' who sells cookbooks. The transitions from historical background to contemporary travels work well enough, yet the story never quite makes the crucial jump from mildly interesting to riveting. 8-page insert, line drawings throughout. Agent, Natasha Fairweather. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Ecott's fascinating descriptions of the secrecy surrounding the use of vanilla and the unusual characters involved in this world will intrigue readers who enjoyed Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief....Recommended." Library Journal
"Vanilla is a fascinating historical investigation with exotic travel thrown in...where the interest never slackens." Conde Nast Traveller
"Precious commodities breed violence, and Tim Ecott...needed the steel nerves of a war correspondent to cover this story....Ecott's fascinating travelogue makes it clear that the high price of natural vanilla extract is, by any measure, a bargain." Laurence A. Marschall, Natural History
"Well written and entertaining....[Ecott] has done his research thoroughly, but his great strengths are the sense of place with which he invests his complex narrative, and the vividness with which he presents the characters he meets on the way." Sunday Telegraph (UK)
"Vanilla is riveting, and will catch the imagination of the gastronomic traveller. People die, people cheat, fortunes are made and lost and Tim Ecott is there to tease out its meaning with a ready writing style, energetic research and wide reading." The Guardian (London)
"This book is riveting." New Statesman (UK)
"Tim Ecott's book, like the essence of vanilla itself, is a potent concentrate of history, character and anecdote that tells the tale of a surprisingly exotic plant." Telegraph Travel (UK)
From Papantla in Mexico "the city that perfumed the world" to the Indian Ocean islands, Vanilla
traces the story of the vanilla plant and its secretive trade. From the golden cups of Aztec emperors to the ice-cream dishes of U.S. presidents, vanilla has mystified and tantalized man for centuries. The only orchid that produces an agriculturally valuable crop, vanilla can mask unpleasant tastes and smells, but also makes pleasant tastes stronger, smoother, and longer lasting. Because it has over four hundred separate flavor components, choosing premium vanilla beans is as complex as judging the aroma and taste of fine wine. Vanilla finds its way into over half of all dessert products sold worldwide, as well as the finest perfumes, well-known brands of rum and vodka, and even Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Americans consume more vanilla than anyone else on Earth a fact that has forced growers and traders to mount armed guard over their plants in the tropical jungle. The traders who travel the world in search of America's favorite flavor are a small and secretive elite. Vanilla is a globetrotting adventure that follows buccaneers, aristocrats, and gourmets, all in search of the ice cream orchid.
Ecott escorts readers on a whimsical journey that chronicles the incredible power of one velvety brown, long, and slender bean, which has become endangered in the wild and the world's most labor-intensive agricultural crop.