Spicy Tales from London’s Kew Gardens

Vanilla shouldn’t exist. Given its complicated sex life, it really isn’t able to reproduce on its own. And given how random the procedure is to artificially fertilize the species, man shouldn’t have been able to figure out how to help it grow in the quantities required for its current level of commercial use.

I learned this during a “Spicy Late” at Kew Gardens in London recently. And while a Spicy Late sounds a little racy, it’s actually a weekly late-closing day themed around this summer’s “Full of Spice” exhibit at the gardens.

I learned the secrets of vanilla production and use at Kew Gardens.
I learned the secrets of vanilla production and use at Kew Gardens.

So, how does vanilla reproduce? Very carefully… and only with the assistance of mankind or a bee found only in Mexico and Central America. So early European attempts to grow the sought-after orchid (yes, it’s a species of orchid!) elsewhere were naturally doomed, as apparently no other bee will do to set the fruit that produces the flavoring.

You see, the vanilla flower is a hermaphrodite… it carries both the male and female sex organs. But where nature has given, nature has also taken away, as in order to avoid self-pollination, nature provided a membrane that separates the organs.

It requires a bee, specifically the Melipona bee, to work its way under the membrane inside the flower, bringing with it pollen, which eventually results in a bouncing baby vanilla pod.

Europeans exported the plants, which grew elsewhere, but didn’t produce vanilla beans. Then they figured out the need for the bees, and tried to export them as well… they died. So vanilla production remained primarily in Mexico for almost 300 years after Europeans “discovered” it.

A young slave figured out that if you lift the membrane out of the way and squeeze the two naughty bits together, you pollinate the plant and produce a fruit. Thus wide-spread cultivation of vanilla was made possible.

Possible, but not easy… only one flower on a vine will open each day. And that flower can only be pollinated on that one day. So every day, the planters have to look at each individual plant to see which have flowers, pollinate them, then repeat the next day. If they miss a flower that was ready to go, too bad… it won’t produce any vanilla that cycle.

And that growing cycle is about six months, with the harvest requiring as much hand labor as the fertilization process. No wonder vanilla is the second most-valuable flavoring in the world (after saffron)!

Oh, and you know how all the high-end vanilla ice creams have the little specks of vanilla seeds to intensify the flavor? The flavor is in the oil surrounding the seeds, not the seeds themselves! So the seeds are nothing but window-dressing, to convince us that the product is worth the higher price.

If that’s the second-most-expensive spice, what’s the most expensive, and why? It’s saffron, and although the growing process is certainly easier than that of vanilla, the labor-intensive harvesting is what makes the price so high.

Saffron is a crocus, and can be grown in many locations. In fact, your local garden center may sell saffron bulbs and encourage you to harvest the stigma for your own “red gold”. But one farmer in Texas who tried to do this as a cash crop reported that it’s the type of project that people get very enthusiastic about in the beginning, then when they realize how much work is involved, lose interest quickly!

It’s that amount of hand labor that makes saffron so expensive. Each autumn-blooming crocus sativus will produce up to four flowers, each of which will have only three of the bright-red stigmas that are hand-harvested and then dried for saffron threads. Around 400 flowers are needed to produce about 2 grams of saffron!!

And although we associate saffron today with Spain (paella, anyone?), England actually cultivated saffron in the 16th century. The town of Saffron Walden, in Essex, is named for the crop that made the area rich for a time. Unfortunately, new flavors such as vanilla eclipsed saffron in popularity, and its cultivation in England died out. There are a couple of farmers currently trying to grow the crop, however, so there may yet be a resurgence.

Saffron buns from Cornwall -- just like my grandmother used to make!
Saffron buns from Cornwall — just like my grandmother used to make!

If you visit Cornwall, you’ll find saffron buns in all the bakeries, and I remember my Cornish grandmother making them regularly. Saffron buns in Cornwall are closely associated with Sunday School outings and the Methodist church (which makes sense, as my family were Wesleyan Methodists). But I find it hard to reconcile this exotic and expensive ingredient with the same culture that created the hearty pasty for the miners to take in their lunch pails. There is one theory that the Cornish were trading with the Phoenicians as early as 400 BC, and may have traded tin for spices, including saffron.

The trade in spices, as any lucrative trade, attracted its share of pirates and unscrupulous men. In the 13th Century, pirates would often ignore ships carrying gold in favor of those carrying saffron. One load of saffron was hijacked by noblemen en route to Basel (Switzerland) and ignited a 14-week “war”. The shipment was eventually returned.

Vanilla has an even bloodier history. First the Aztecs conquered the original vanilla-growing tribe, then the Europeans conquered the Aztecs. The Kew guide also told of a massacre in Malaysia prompted by vanilla rivalry, but I can’t find any details to confirm that.

Although apparently the stakes are high enough that there are still serious feuds over vanilla. In 2013, after vanilla prices doubled, two major vanilla buyers in Tonga became embroiled in a dispute over prices, contracts and alleged unfair business practices. Luckily, these days the fighting is done in court and in government offices.

Peppercorn rent
And as an example of how the valuation of spices can change, consider the phrase “peppercorn rent”. Its usage today means a token amount, although it can be literal… the University of Bath, for example, pays one peppercorn each year to the chairman of the local council to fulfil the terms of their 999-year lease. (Peppercorns were used, by the way, as they were small, lightweight and retained their flavor so were easy to transport.)

However, a peppercorn wasn’t always a trifle… until the 1800s, in fact, pepper was a luxury that only the rich could afford and was termed “black gold”. The Dutch even have their own phrase, “pepper expensive”, to mean something crazy expensive. So while a single peppercorn might not cost a fortune, it was certainly nothing to sneeze at!

More photos from the Spicy Late at Kew:

A variety of exotic marshmallows were on sale
A variety of exotic marshmallows were on sale
Including an American-style grill for toasting (no ingredients for 'Smores, though)
Including an American-style grill for toasting (no ingredients for ‘Smores, though)








There was even a machine that puffed out the odors of different spices when you pushed the buttons, allowing you to create your own aromatic spice blend.  When they then recreated using real spices for you to take home!
There was even a machine that puffed out the odors of different spices when you pushed the buttons, allowing you to create your own aromatic spice blend. When they then recreated using real spices for you to take home!

2 thoughts on “Spicy Tales from London’s Kew Gardens

  1. Best food history ( shenanigans) so far. BTW, am watching the new production of “Poldark” on PBS. Story is is set in Cornwall, and they mentioned tin and saffron in an episode! At the time it meant nothing to me, know I’m hip to the thang! liz

  2. Thanks! Every person I meet here asks if I’ve been watching “Poldark”, and unfortunately, the answer is no. But about half of those people then go on to complain that the show is bringing in far too many tourists. There are starting to be Poldark guide books, tours, etc. (Although it’s still not as many tourists as “Doc Martin”! The filming has apparently overrun the little village of Port Isaac!)

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