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Five Fascinating Facts About Vanilla

You know vanilla is oh-so-delicious, and you could probably guess that it’s the world’s most popular flavor and scent. From desserts to perfumes to bug repellents, its uses are far-reaching and not at all…vanilla.

No surprise here: sales of our Vanilla Soft Serve Mix far exceed our second most popular flavor – Chocolate – so we feel a particular affinity for this fabulous flavor. Just like the Mesoamericans who originally cultivated vanilla, we searched the land (cough, the internet) to gather and share these lesser-known facts about this popular spice.

1. It’s Ancient

Just like chocolate, vanilla was first discovered in the region that is now Central America. It appears to have been discovered in the 15th century. However, 75% of today’s vanilla comes from Madagascar and the island of Réunion, where a vanilla vine was smuggled in the 1700s. On the island, the plant grew beautiful blossoms but infrequent and unpredictable pods (a.k.a. vanilla beans). The problem was that the region lacked the Melipone bee – found only in Mexico – to pollinate the flower. It took almost 50 years to develop a hand-pollination method for the plant.

2. It’s Part of History

Thomas Jefferson introduced the U.S. to vanilla after tasting it in France, where he was serving as Ambassador to King Louis XVI. He wrote down the recipe for vanilla ice cream and was known to have served it alongside pastries during his term at the President’s House (now known as the White House). His hand-written note, dating back to the 1780s, is considered to be the first known recipe recorded by an American. It now lives in the Library of Congress.

3. It’s Expensive

After saffron, vanilla is the most expensive spice in the world because it is so time-consuming and labor-intensive to produce. The plant, surprisingly from the orchid family, grows as a vine that can take years to mature. The plant produces a flower that makes the vanilla bean, and it only blooms for 24 hours. It must be pollinated during that time, or it will die. Outside of Central America, the flowers must be pollinated by hand with teeny-tiny tools. And after the beans are harvested, they can take six to nine months to cure. Not to mention, vanilla only grows between 10 to 20 degrees north or south of the Equator. Talk about a stubborn spice.

4. It’s Useful

Beyond its uses as a flavor, vanilla has many other around-the-home applications, like freshening up your fridge (or microwave) and concealing the strong smell of paint. The next time you find yourself painting a bedroom, add a tablespoon of vanilla extract to the can to save your nostrils. In the kitchen, vanilla can be used (with water) to wipe down the fridge and microwave, eliminating any stale/stingy/sour odors that may be lingering. It can also be used to repel spiders and mosquitoes, neither of which can stand the vanilla scent we love! To create a safe DIY mosquito repellent, simply combine equal parts water and vanilla extract, spray it on your skin, and say sayonara to itchy bug bites. To repel spiders, place a bowl of vanilla beans (that have been preserved in vodka or vinegar) on any surface that you’d like to keep a spider-free zone.

5. It’s Popular

Internationally, vanilla continues to rank as the most popular flavor of ice cream. But what’s the scoop on all the different varieties? Generally, anything labeled straight-up vanilla is made with vanilla extract or a substitute. Vanilla bean ice cream uses unprocessed beans from a vanilla pod, which appear as black specks. French vanilla does not use vanilla from France but a classic French method of making ice cream from an egg-custard base, accounting for its yellowish hue.

“Vanilla” may have become a synonym for boring, but it’s obviously anything but. And while it’s expensive and labor-intensive in its original form, vanilla can be affordable and convenient as a soft serve

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