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V is for Vanilla

Food by Letter - V is for Vanilla

Vanilla is anything but boring. It is a stunningly complex and subtle spice, containing somewhere between 250 and 500 different flavor and fragrance components. This gentle, distinct flavor is strongly aromatic with warm floral notes and is a beloved taste among expert chefs and little kids alike, with good reason…it is delicious! 

The truth is, plain vanilla is anything but dull. Just take a look at the spice’s history! Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, and the first people to have cultivated it was the Totonacs of Mexico’s eastern coast. The Aztecs then acquired vanilla when they conquered the Totonacs in the 15th Century. The Spanish, in turn, got it when they conquered the Aztecs. In the early 17th Century, an apothecary employed by Queen Elizabeth I invented an all-vanilla-flavored sweetmeat. Surprise, surprise: the Queen adored them. By the next century, the French were using vanilla to flavor ice cream, a delicacy so beloved by Thomas Jefferson that he copied down a recipe while in Paris that is now preserved in the Library of Congress.

Vanilla came late to recipe books (around 1805). Why? Vanilla is pricey! It is the second most expensive spice in the world because its production is so labor-intensive. Vanilla grows as a clinging vine, reaching lengths of up to 300 feet, from which sprout pale greenish-yellow flowers, about four inches in diameter. These are pollinated by melipona bees and hummingbirds. Each flower remains open for just 24 hours, after which, if not pollinated, it wilts, dies, and drops to the ground. If pollination is successful, a fruit develops in the form of a 6-to-10-inch-long pod, filled with thousands of tiny black seeds. The discovery of a successful hand-pollination method in 1841 allowed vanilla plantations to spring up across the globe, from Madagascar to India, Tahiti, and Indonesia. Once ripe, the vanilla beans are individually hand-picked and then undergo a prolonged, multi-step curing process. The end result is the aromatic, black pods sold by spice purveyors. Talk about labor-intensive! Phew, we’re exhausted just reading this! 

Looking for a winning winter cocktail for the upcoming holiday season? Wow your guests with this beautifully flavored Vanilla Bean Fizz from Taste of Home, recipe below.


  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 vanilla beans, split
  • 4 cups champagne, chilled


  1. In a small saucepan, bring water and sugar to a boil. Add vanilla beans. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat; cool to room temperature. Remove beans.
  2. For each serving, pour 1/4 cup vanilla syrup into a champagne flute; add 1/2 cup champagne.
  3. Sip and enjoy!

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