Colonial Chocolate Spices: Vanilla
Visitors to Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop are often surprised to discover that our colonial drinking chocolate is seasoned with eight different spices. American Heritage Historic Chocolate is flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, chili pepper, anise, orange zest, salt, and annatto, as well as a small amount of sugar. We will be taking a closer look at each of these spices to explore their origins and uses in colonial American cooking.
Vanilla is often thought of as an alternative to chocolate, but the history of these two flavors is much more complementary and intertwined than you may think. Vanilla beans are the seed pods of the Vanilla planifolia plant, an orchid that grows as a climbing vine in tropical forests. These seed pods are only produced when the plant’s flowers are pollinated within 8-12 hours of blooming. The pods are harvested before they are fully ripened, about 6-9 months after pollination. The freshly harvested seed pods are green and flavorless and must undergo a multistep curing process to transform them into the dark, aromatic vanilla beans we are familiar with. Vanilla is sold as whole vanilla beans or as vanilla extract, which is an alcohol and water solution that has been infused with vanilla.
Vanilla is native to Southeastern Mexico and Guatemala. The native people of this region, including the Aztecs, cultivated and cured vanilla primarily as a flavoring for chocolate! Following his conquest of the Aztecs, Hernán Cortés brought both vanilla and chocolate back to Spain in the 1500s. Vanilla was used almost exclusively as a flavoring for chocolate in Europe until the 17th century, when the first vanilla flavored desserts were developed. Spain maintained a monopoly on the trade of vanilla until the 19th century, as attempts to cultivate the plant outside of its native habitat resulted in plants that failed to produce seed pods. While the vanilla plants grew successfully in similar climates, the new environments lacked the primary pollinator of vanilla flowers, the Melipona bee, so the flowers were not pollinated quickly enough to produce seed pods. This problem was solved in 1841, when a slave named Edmond Albius first discovered how to pollinate the flowers by hand. This discovery allowed vanilla plants to be cultivated around the globe and nearly all vanilla continues to be hand pollinated today.
Due to vanilla’s relative rarity and expense in the 1700s, it was not a widely used spice in colonial American cooking. Its primary use continued to be as a flavoring for chocolate, as it was in Europe. It was also used to make vanilla and chocolate creams and ice creams. Before modern refrigeration, ice cream was a very special treat for most Americans during the summer months because the means to store and keep the necessary ice were available to only the wealthiest Americans. In spite of this, ice cream became increasingly popular in America during the late 1700s and early 1800s, due in part to Thomas Jefferson, who often served it to guests during his presidency. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed vanilla ice cream during a trip to France in 1784, brought back a recipe for it, and had it made and served in his kitchens throughout the rest of his life. If you’re interested in making your own frozen dessert, our historic chocolate popsicles are the perfect way to enjoy the historic flavor combination of chocolate and vanilla!