The Imperious Imperialist

The Imperious Imperialist.

This vanilla pavlova island floats on honey and is dusted with breadcrumbs and powdered sugar. Though at first glance it's sweet to the core, if you look more closely at the stories this dish tells, you will never see sweetness the same.

Sugar itself is inextricably linked with slavery, and so is vanilla. The vanilla bean comes from an orchid native to Mexico which blooms only for a few hours, and amazingly, it is only pollinated by a small bee, the melipona. So if vanilla is only pollinated by that, how does vanilla get to be popular at all?

The answer lies in botanical imperial competition at its finest... Spain had a corner on the market, but Dutch and French botanists were working on getting vanilla to produce in tropical countries controlled by their empires. On the Island of Bourbon (sound familiar... "Bourbon vanilla"?), one day, a 12 year old slave boy figured out what all the men could not. He worked out a way using a small stick to pollinate the orchid. His name was Edmond Albius. Today, all vanilla beans are still hand-pollinated, and we would not have vanilla from Tahiti, Madagascar, or elsewhere, if it weren’t for Edmond Albius' discovery. Today, the island of Bourbon is known as Réunion.

Liz PearComment