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Book Review – Vanilla by Patricia Rain

The full title of the book, Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance, says it all. Rain has documented the history of vanilla from its native Mexico to present day plantations and small family farms all over the world. It is an amazing story of fascination and greed. This is a must read for true culinary experts who want to learn more about one of the most important flavorings used today.

I was captivated by the history, political intrigue and violence documented in this book. The vanilla orchid grows naturally in the northeastern region of South America and southern Mexico and was first used as a currency by the Totonac Indians and then a form of taxation in the region by the Aztecs. It was introduced to Spain by the Conquistadores and then Europeans introduced the plant to tropical growing areas around the world, especially in the Indian Ocean area where the French controlled the trade for years. Throughout the world where it is grown Vanilla beans are so precious to farmers that it is often life threatening to get them to market and then to get the proceeds back to the farms where the beans are produced. In some places individual beans are branded so that if they are stolen they cannot be resold!

Rain has included a number of recipes in the book which give the reader new and different ways to use vanilla and recommends that all of us try to use the extract from real beans in order to provide a decent living for the thousands of small and large growers around the world. One movement I was interested in is the sustainable development group patterned after the Coffee called Fair Trade which would provide certification for small farmers who grow organically in order to receive a higher price for their product. The higher price allows the farmers to earn a living wage allowing children to attend school and increase their education. This Fair Trade movement for vanilla is still in its infancy, but we can hope that it will expand across the globe.

She educates us on the meanings of the various ingredients so that you’ll be able to distinguish between Pure Vanilla Extract and Natural Vanilla Flavor or Vanillan Flavoring. The number and variety of types of vanilla – natural and synthetic – is amazing! And, of course, there is a section on the vanilla bean, how to choose and use them.

Rain is the president of The Vanilla Company where she sells vanilla products, her books and has wonderful recipes using the beans. She is the author of six books including The Vanilla Chef and has traveled extensively in her quest to learn about the flavoring.

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