VANILLA: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid

Tim Ecott, Author
Tim Ecott, Author . Grove $22 (278p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1775-5
Reviewed on: 05/03/2004
Release date: 06/01/2004
Paperback - 278 pages - 978-0-8021-4201-6
Open Ebook - 304 pages - 978-1-55584-630-5
Hardcover - 304 pages - 978-0-7181-4589-7
Hardcover - 226 pages - 978-0-14-101153-0
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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 Cortés 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 Réunion 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)

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