THE SE­CRET LIFE OF VANILLA

How the cre­ation of an ar­ti­fi­cial flavour­ing for­ever changed how we eat

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - MARK SCHATZKER

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,

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