Posted in Kafevend Blog

Hot chocolate spices- vanilla

The weather has yet again taken a turn for the chillier end of the thermometer this weekend. There's no better time then to consider another spice for our hot chocolates! Today we consider vanilla, a wildly popular flavour in a great many foods and drinks.

A pricy spice

Like the cacao bean itself, vanilla is native to Central America. It was known to the Aztecs and later to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who is credited with introducing it (and cacao beans) to Europe. Unlike cacao trees however, the vanilla plant initially proved decidedly resistant to domestication anywhere other than its point of origin.

This was eventually discovered to be due to its finickiness about pollination. It had a symbiotic relationship which a particular species of bee in Mesoamerica, which obviously wasn't present when it was shipped elsewhere. Though this fact was first discovered by a botanist called Charles François, it was a twelve year old slave called Edmond Albius who found that vanilla could be successfully pollinated by hand in 1841. This discovery meant that vanilla could finally be grown elsewhere in the world, but it would always be a labour intensive crop to produce. This has always kept the price of vanilla very high- it is the second most expensive spice in the world behind saffron.


Thankfully for our wallets, synthetic versions of vanilla have been developed in more recent times. The principle one is vanillin. This is a compound naturally found in vanilla alongside hundreds of other compounds. It was first isolated by Nicolas- Theodore Gobley, before two German scientists- Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann- worked out its structure and subsequently a way to produce it from something other than vanilla itself. Without their work, it would be unlikely that most of us would taste vanilla. The vast majority of vanilla flavourings found in the food and drinks we buy are synthetic, thanks to being drastically cheaper.

So how can you incorporate vanilla into your hot chocolate? It's really quite easy. The simplest way is to use the little pots of vanilla extract you'd normally use to flavour your cakes and such- just add a few drops to taste. If you are willing to spend a little extra cash and time, you can use some actual vanilla. Vanilla pods are long, thin, black and wrinkled looking things- like a chili pepper that's been out in the sun too long. Inside them are lots of tiny seeds, which are the bits you want- just cut the pod in half lengthways, then scrape them out. You can then add them to your mug, or brew them up in a saucepan with your milk, cocoa and a selection of other spices for a truly decadent hot chocolate!



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