Vanilla, by Tim Ecott

The exotic history of a kitchen favourite
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The Independent Culture

We have had books on almost everything in the cupboard - nutmeg, chocolate, salt - and so it's only to be expected that we should now have one on vanilla. This genre, not so much Aga-saga as larder-saga, has the advantage of making readers salivate before they turn the first page. Food tastes and smells, the psychologists say, are associated with our earliest and fondest memories.

We have had books on almost everything in the cupboard - nutmeg, chocolate, salt - and so it's only to be expected that we should now have one on vanilla. This genre, not so much Aga-saga as larder-saga, has the advantage of making readers salivate before they turn the first page. Food tastes and smells, the psychologists say, are associated with our earliest and fondest memories.

These books can also give the best kind of geography lesson, with distant islands, exotic peoples, as well as tales of Sisyphean effort and triumph featuring eccentric enthusiasts who are determined to turn strange-looking products into the latest Western culinary fad.

In choosing vanilla, Ecott has hit the jackpot. The plant Vanilla planifolia originated in south-eastern Mexico. It was nurtured by Aztecs who guarded the secret of extracting its sensational juice until, in the mid 19th century, a young African slave discovered how to pollinate the flowers by hand.

The resulting story, of how the plant became the source of competing commercial and national interests, is fascinating, and Ecott has applied to it a rigorous journalistic sense of enquiry that is often absent from such books.

Ecott's investigation into this remarkable plant is driven by a set of first-hand accounts of the places that he visited in his research. He makes his daily experiences part of the narrative, mixing the first-personal singular and archival material. So he arrives at a kind of travelogue that avoids the clichés of the form while being free of dry academic exposition. There are times when you sense that this is a writer who might soon want to break free of travel writing entirely.

Ecott's previous book, Neutral Buoyancy, also immersed readers in a world - of diving - that the author had experienced first-hand. There, he communicated its attraction with the kind of semi-messianic enthusiasm that divers and their brethren, the surfing boys, understand only too well. Having got over the unstoppable jealousy I felt while reading about his life cruising around in the Indian Ocean in Neutral Buoyancy, I found his modest style appealing and forthright.

With Vanilla, this easy mix of diary and investigation can occasionally slip into short bursts of rhapsodic prose where you feel that he is apeing Somerset Maugham, perhaps unconsciously. But then exotic climes like those described in this book - his narrative takes us from Mexico to Madagascar to Illinois - still affect the minds of the most articulate pink-fleshed Westerners.

What I like best about Vanilla is the way that it embraces horticulture, economics, the trading floor (as vanilla is now a multi-million dollar business) and the personal lives of its desperate, fascinating and occasionally criminal characters. Its readers should ensure that they do their homework by eating products with real vanilla in them, to understand the near-religious fervour that has gripped, and still fixates, those who work with this wonderful substance. It won't be a chore.

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