The Story of Vanilla

51iwhiifpgl.jpgExcerpt is from the book "Vanilla: Travels In Search Of The Ice Cream Orchid" by Tim Ecott, published in 2004 by Grove Press.

In the country we now call Mexico, people were using vanilla long before any Europeans set foot on their land, and the dried pods were rare enough to be valued as a form of currency. Indeed, by 1519, when the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés reached Mexico, the ruling Aztecs were demanding vanilla as tax from the people of central and eastern tropical plateau. The Aztecs, like the Maya before them, knew that the black pods could be dried and ground up as flavouring for xocoatl, the bitter liquid make from cacao, which we know today as chocolate. It was a drink reserved for aristocracy, or for soldiers about to go into battle.

The vanilla story begins in the salt-thick air of Veracruz. Here, the first vanilla plants were cultivated and tended by the people who called themselves Totonac. These people found the wild orchids and called them xa’nat. The Totonac say that the flowers and their scented seed pods sprang from blood. Not just ordinary blood, but the blood of a princess who was so beautiful and so pure in spirit that her father decided she should never be possessed by a mortal man.

According to the Totonac legend the princess was daughter of King Teniztli, and he named her Tzacopontziza, after the Morning Star. To keep her pure, the king had his daughter blessed by the priests and consecrated to Tonacayahua, the Goddess of Fertility. Inevitably, a young man of the tribe, named Zkata Oxga – Running Deer – fell in love with the girl and abducted her, making off with her into the mountains. The legend says that before the young couple could reach safety they were intercepted by a fire-breathing monster who blocked their escape, allowing Teniztli’s high priests to capture them.

Princess Tzacopontziza and her lover had committed a mortal sin, and the priests decapitated them both and threw their bodies into a mountain ravine. As their blood seeped into the ground it dried the earth, and after some days a bush sprang from the ground where their blood had spilled. Very soon an orchid was seen growing among its branches. The plant grew rapidly and produced small pale flowers which in time sprouted several beans, delicate yet strong. When the beans matured they darkened, eventually emitting an exquisite perfume more beautiful than anything the subjects of King Teniztli had ever known before. People believed that the scent was the pure sweet soul of the dead princess and the orchid that grew in the mountains was declared sacred.