Sugar ‘n Spice and All That’s Nice

This time of the year cooks everywhere are baking up a storm. Cakes, pies, cookies, candies you name it. And guess what spice they’ll use the most. If you said vanilla you would be correct. It’s the most expensive spice after saffron because it’s difficult to grow.

But where does vanilla come from?

Eighty percent of vanilla is produced in Madagascar. It’s an island southeast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. The soil and the climate are perfect growing conditions. Vanilla grows in pods which when picked turn black and shriveled. But oh what a taste and aroma.

It’s rumored that Thomas Jefferson was the first one to use as a flavoring in cooking. Whether he was the first to use it or not, vanilla quickly became the most popular spice in the U.S. Before that, the Totonac Indians of Mexico first cultivated the bean. They used it in rituals long before Columbus came to America. Then it was adopted by the Aztecs who introduced it to Cortez. Cortez brought it to Europe. So it’s been around a long time.

The C.F. Sauer Company in Richmond, Virginia has been selling vanilla since 1884 when C.F. Sauer who was a 17-year-old pharmacy clerk noticed housewives by the droves bringing empty bottles to be filled with the flavoring extract. (Vanilla was sold in pharmacies back then because of the alcohol content. During the extraction process, the beans are chopped into small pieces, placed in baskets and then showered with pure grain alcohol. After several days, the liquid is drawn off and mixed with sugar and water to reduce the alcoholic content. Then it’s bottled and sold.)

Vanilla Bean Pods

Anyway, Mr. Sauer started his own business three years later in 1887 and delivered bottles of it by way of horse and buggy. It’s still going strong today and still run by the Sauer family. They import all of their vanilla beans from Madagascar.

Another large producer of the popular flavoring is McCormick. Twenty-five year old Willoughby McCormick formed the company in 1889. Every housewife is familiar with the McCormick brand.

In 2004, a kilo (approx. 2.2 pounds) of vanilla beans fetched $500. Interestingly, Coca Cola uses natural vanilla as a main ingredient along with its cola syrup.

But, like everything else there are imitations. Most artificial vanilla contains vanillin which is a natural polymer found in wood. The imitation is cheaper but doesn’t come close to the real thing in taste or smell.

Do you use a lot of vanilla? What is your favorite thing to bake? Can you imagine how pastries and candy would taste if we had no vanilla?


Sugar ‘n Spice and All That’s Nice — 10 Comments

  1. I love vanilla. I get mine straight from Mexico, when I worked at the pig farms, many of my employees would go back home & they would bring me back the “real vanilla”, wow it has a powerful taste. I love to put it in all things I bake. My favorite thing to bake are blueberry muffins & the vanilla I use just make them taste amazingly spectacular. Great article Linda. Now I’m hungry from blueberry muffins.

    • Good morning, Miss Tonya…..Mexican vanilla is the best. It’s really pure and, you’re right, the taste is incomparable. Hey, send me one of those muffins! Just kidding. My favorite thing I think is fudge candy. Oh my goodness. I’ve gained ten pounds just writing this comment.

      Lots of love and hugs!

      • Linda- I love fudge too, just reading all the comments is making me gain weight as well, oh well it is the holiday season.

  2. Pure mexican vanilla is my favorite. It smells so good you just want to drink it. I love cooking and baking. I bake tons of cookies for the holidays. Merry Christmas!

    • Good morning, Stephanie……Thanks for coming! I’ve sure been tempted to drink it. It just smells so good. Back in the 1800s, women used to dab it behind their ears for perfume. Strange but it made a great substitute. I love cookies! Oh man! Sugar cookies either plain or with decoration are my favorites. But oatmeal raisin comes in second. However….I never met a cookie I didn’t love. Don’t you overdo!

      Sending love and hugs!

  3. As I just pointed out to Stephanie, women in the 1800s used to dab vanilla behind their ears and rub it on their wrists in the place of perfume. I’ll bet it sure made them smell good. Vanilla was and still is invaluable. And nothing makes your house come alive like the wonderful scent of baked goods.

  4. I never really gave much thought to how vanilla was made…interesting article. Madagascar seems like such a neat and exotic place.
    Well, without vanilla I guess we’d have to go with other flavorings like lemon, strawberry, cherry, etc., or go with recipes that don’t require vanilla like molasses cookies or chocolate fudge. I sure would miss vanilla though.
    My favorite thing to bake is peanut butter cookies with a chocolate kiss in the middle.
    I wish you a wonderful and joy filled Christmas, Linda.

    • Hi Sarah……Thanks for dropping by. I hope your knee surgery went well. At least that’s what I saw on FB. Yes, we’d sure have to learn to improvise if we didn’t have vanilla. I just can’t imagine making my spice or carrot cake without it. Just wouldn’t be the same. I hope you enjoy plenty of those peanut butter/chocolate kiss cookies!

      Merry Christmas, my friend! 🙂

  5. Yes I use a lot of vanilla this time of the year for making candy, I am going to make fudge this afternoon. I was thinking I had better pick up another bottle. About everything I make calls for vanilla when it comes to the candy.

    • Good morning, Quilt Lady…..I see you’re another vanilla lover. There’s simply no substitute for it. I can’t even imagine not having it to add flavor to candies and pastries. I hope your fudge turned out perfectly!