THE SECRET LIFE OF VANILLA
How the creation of an artificial flavouring forever changed how we eat
How a much-loved flavour transmuted from tropical orchids in Madagascar to a chemical formula in an American taste laboratory.
THE FOURTH TIME HANK KAESTNER visited Madagascar, he got stuck in a lift. Kaestner always visited in spring; he always stayed at the Hilton; and over those four visits, the hotel lift performed very much like the nation’s economy. The first three times, it had run smoothly; now it was stuck. To lovers of milkshakes, chocolate, ice-cream and cake icing, this was grave news.
Kaestner was a spice buyer for McCormick & Company, a profession as glamorous as spying but with better food. One week he might fly to Brazil to buy a few tons of cloves; the next he’d go on an allspice expedition in the Mexican jungle and get swarmed by killer bees. He once held a private meeting with the king of Tonga. Kaestner loved his job for two reasons: he loved spices and he loved the amazing places they grew. And among all of those places, Madagascar was special because of what grew there: vanilla, which Kaestner calls “the most magical spice”.
Now the island nation was in trouble. The problems started in February 1975, when the president of Madagascar was assassinated. Less than a year later, the country’s new leader, a military man named Didier Ratsiraka, nationalised banks and industries and declared the country a Marxist republic. Within months, embassies were closed and tourism shrivelled. At the formerly luxurious Hilton, there were burnt- out light bulbs in the lobby and North Koreans, brought in to do security, walking the hallways.
Vanilla production was devastated. By 1979, Madagascar was exporting just over a quarter as much vanilla as it had in 1976. Back in his office at McCormick headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, Kaestner received a package containing photos of a great swath of cured vanilla beans being crushed by a steamroller. The government was destroying its buffer stock. It wanted the price to go even higher. It doubled.
This was distressing news for McCormick. Vanilla was a major profit centre. The company could make as much money off a few hundred tons of vanilla beans as it could from 10,000 tons of black pepper. Everyone loves vanilla. Nothing improves cake icing or lifts French toast like a few dark drops of pure vanilla extract. It’s flavouring royalty: better than caramel, better than almond and better than toffee.
WAS THERE AN EASIER WAY TO MAKE VANILLA? THE ANSWER WAS INGENIOUSLY SIMPLE: FOOL PEOPLE
Everything about vanilla extract was perfect except for one thing: the price. Even under non–Marxist republic conditions, the stuff was expensive. Making it requires cultivating vanilla orchids, pollinating the blossoms by hand, waiting for the beans [actually seed pods] to ripen, picking them at just the right time, boiling them in water, “sweating” them in hot chests or tanks, setting them out every morning to bake in the sun until they’re dried, then conditioning them in closed boxes for months.
At this point, the beans – which are now as moist as a raisin and as long and dark as a cigarillo – are shipped to Europe, then to New York and then to an extraction plant, where they’re chopped into tiny pieces and alcohol is passed over them continuously in a process of steeping that can take more than a day. Finally, the brew is held for weeks so it can settle. It takes a year and a half to go from orchid blossom to extract, 30g of which costs as much as a shot of good single-malt whisky.
Now there was a dark cloud hanging over vanilla. Prices were going up. Supply was dwindling. A home gourmet or a high-end pastry chef might tolerate expensive extract, but McCormick had customers who produced ice cream, yoghurt, beverages, chocolate and pastries and ordered huge quantities of vanilla extract. What were they going to do?
In 1978, two years after Kaestner got trapped in that lift, McCormick asked a question: is there an easier way to make vanilla? There was. And the answer, though spectacularly complex, was also ingeniously simple: fool people.
ONE HUNDRED AND SEVEN YEARS earlier, a German chemist at the Frederick William University ( now the Humboldt University of Berlin) had asked the same question. Wilhelm Haarmann possessed a strange interest in pine cones. He believed they were hiding a secret: the potential to produce an almost magical white powder that could make pastries, drinks and chocolate taste better.
The powder itself was no secret. It had been discovered years earlier by a Frenchman who had purified and filtered vanilla extract until he’d been left with a crystalline substance that smelled potently of vanilla. The new substance became known as vanillin ( pronounced VAN- illin). But then, for nearly two decades, nothing. The mystery of vanilla was no longer a mystery, but no-one could do much about it because vanillin could be made only from vanilla extract. And since vanilla extract was already expensive, vanillin was said to be worth more than its weight in gold.
Haarmann, however, knew something others didn’t. Years earlier, in his hometown of Holzminden, a pharmacist had been experimenting with a substance he’d scraped from the inner bark of pine trees. He filtered, pressed, boiled down and purified the gooey material until he was left with crystals he described as “white, silky-sheened, very delicate”. When the pharmacist squirted acid on these crystals, an extraordinary reaction took place. The air became perfumed with vanilla.
Was it possible to produce this precious and exotic substance from something as ordinary as pine trees? Haarmann got his hands on the pharmacist’s remaining stash of pine crystals and, in his laboratory, pulled
off a chemistry miracle. He turned pine crystals into vanillin.
In 1875, after collecting 20kg of pine cones in the Black Forest, Haar-
MUCH OF WHAT WE THINK OF AS FLAVOUR
IS AROMA. THE NOSE’S GREATEST TALENT IS
RECOGNISING THE VALUE OF FLAVOUR
mann opened Haarmann’s Vanillinfabrik. What had formerly been the exclusive domain of a tropical orchid was now being produced in a factory in Germany. Pine cones went in one end, and vanillin came out the other. Haarmann’s company would eventually figure out how to make vanillin from clove oil, which was even cheaper, and would go on to manufacture a synthetic flavouring found in violets that is still used to create fruit flavours. His flavour business grew to be so successful that Holzminden became known as the City of Fragrances.
THAT PROBABLY SOUNDS ODD. A city that makes flavours becoming famous for fragrances. That’s because so much of what we think of as flavour is actually aroma – scent, bouquet, odour and so on. A great deal of what characterises the food we love is no more substantial than perfume. And it is explained by a phenomenon known as “retronasal olfaction”– or back-ofthe-nose smelling.
Retronasal olfaction happens when an aroma enters your nose not through your nostrils but through your throat. It is fundamentally different from nostril smelling, engaging other parts of the brain. Of all the senses, it is both the most intense and, curiously, the most unknown. Almost no-one has any idea that the nose’s greatest talent is appreciating flavour. (The people who come closest are wine aficionados.)
This is how it works: when you eat food, the combination of chewing and heat releases “volatile aromatic compounds” – wafting food vapours, basically, like the ones you see emanating from burbling pots and grilling steaks in vintage cartoons. As you eat, these aromatic gases float up or are exhaled into the nasal cavity (situated above the roof of your mouth), the ceiling of which is dappled with microscopic pouches that catch odours.
These pouches are so tiny that whole molecules don’t fit inside them, only parts of molecules. When a receptor is “stimulated”, it sends a signal through the human body’s most direct conduit of nerve fibre to the olfactory bulb, an ancient-olive-shaped piece of the brain that hovers over the nasal cavity as though it, too, is trying to get in on the smelling action.
A single molecule can have lots of different parts and, therefore,