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An ingredient, a hunt, a love for a book

A book recommendation “Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance” by Tim Ecott

How hard can it be to find a book?

Once again an order for my favourite ingredient, Vanilla, had arrived at our house. This time, I was curious, I wanted to know more. Actually, I wanted to know everything about Vanilla. Being a researcher by nature but also by education (I have a Research Master in Politics), I tried to gather as much information as possible about this strange bean. Wikipedia, was not too helpful, there was only little information, but other websites were scares too. Going back and forth between websites and different language versions of Wikipedia, I decided that I needed to do some real research, which means GET A BOOK on the topic.

One of the Wikipedia articles on Vanilla, was equipped with a “further reading” section, which mentioned a book that caught my attention. It was called Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance, by Tim Ecott. In a world were everything is available all the time, I decided to buy the book. And that’s where it all started…


My beautiful copy of Ecott’s book on Vanilla

Amazon flashed unbelievable prices at me, 80€ for a book? Well those weren’t unbelievable prices, at least not for me, as many books I would have liked to use for my research papers were also in that price range. The book on Vanilla was out of print. I had been confident, a book published in 2004 should be available in 2012, no? Well no, there were no more copies out there.

I checked Amazon France, UK, US, Germany, and in the end settled to order it to Germany to my aunt’s house. And guess what!? I paid a mere 2,59€ for my book! That’s a bargain compared to the 80€ or so, that I had seen elsewhere. I had my book, the one I wanted. It was a beautiful hard cover edition, second hand, with the one, almost invisible flaw of a few stains on the side. I don’t think that the person who owned it before me, actually read it. But at the time I was reading another one, so I took some time before I really started reading Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance, by Tim Ecott. Now, a few years later, I have managed to find the French translation of this book. The French title of it is La Vanille – À la recherche de l’orchidée au fruit noir. And my mother in law was the happy recipient of a copy a few months ago.

Book Selfie

Proudly holding on to my copy of “Vanilla” by Tim Ecott, in the background you can see a painting by my mother.

Now it’s more than 2 years since I finished reading this amazing book, it definitely makes it on my list of all time favourites, it might actually be my FAVOURITE book! So reviewing it is a bit hard (for that it is great to have read a book only recently), thus I will share what has marked me, what I have enjoyed most.I am seriously considering to reread it, as to refresh my memories and to enjoy a magnificent book once again.

Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance, by Tim Ecott is a travel book, but not a tourist guide. It is travel literature in the Chatwin style, thus rich in personal travel stories, historical background and other little anecdotes. But one also learns a good lesson in botanics when reading this book.

Vanilla only grows in specific environments, it is hot and humid. Originally from Mexico, it was exported to la Réunion (and other islands), where it did only flower but bore no fruit. Thanks to the slave Edmond, of whom we discover the story, this orchid started bearing fruits far away from its homelands. Which in essence is a legend, told along different storylines,

To impress this girl, the boy told her he could show her the male and female parts of an orchid. You can imagine – la fécondation – it is a very sensual process. Afterwards, Edmond suggested that he could do to the girl what he had just done to the orchid. (p.131)

We also accompany the author into strange libraries, find out the behind the scenes of the vanilla business. How is it grown? How is it cured? How is it sold? How exports vanilla? The whole business from the vine to the dessert is smoothly unraveled.


to give you an idea, here is the table of contents, aren’t those titles promising?

We get acquainted with the Vanilla Prince, the Vanilla Queen and some other strange characters. Crime and vanilla, social prosperity and vanilla, they all are important in this book. At the same time, breathtaking landscapes are described and mouthwatering dishes make us dream of far away places such as Tahiti.

The Vanilla trade, is a world on its own, that I dream of knowing, but without being killed in the process.

The family responsible for mint flavoured gum and toothpaste, is also the family who controls most of the vanilla business. Vanilla is probably a very important ingredient for Coca-Cola, but that no one wants to confirm or deny. And the black spots you have in vanilla ice-cream are only cosmetic. What is important is that your ice-cream, or product with vanilla, actually includes vanilla. Trust me, when it does, they usually tell you. “Vanilla flavour” will most likely be synthetic. And vanilla cannot be synthesised correctly, there is always something missing, it is just too complex.

The reader also learns that Vanilla is a very important ingredient in perfumes, and that one should abstain from buying over-priced dry twigs. Of course Vanilla needs a certain degree of dryness, but the pods should be flexible and have a greasy look to them.

Today, most vanilla is hand pollinated, the most important grower is Madagascar, sold under “Bourbon Vanilla”. Pods from Madagascar often have small scars at one end, they are markings, often the initials of the growers, to protect their crops from being robbed. Tahitian Vanilla is different in taste, as it is a different species than the ones grown in Mexico and Madagascar (Vanilla planifolia, but no one really knows which species were crossed (by man? or naturally?) to give us Vanilla tahitensis.

In the end, I have to confess, I loved this book so much that I did not want it to end. I made the last chapter last a month, reading only a few sentences not too much, to enjoy this book as long as I could.


Beautiful inside cover of “Vanilla” by Tim Ecott. On the left you can see some Tahitian Vanilla, and on the right some Bourbon Vanilla from Madagascar.

Book recommendation (and pictures hosted on flickr) by Solveig Werner  of Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance by Tim Ecott, published in 2004 by Michael Joseph an imprint of Penguin Books

Here you can find an article Tim Ecott wrote for intelligent life

You can try to find the book here, it has different titles depending on edition (which can also be Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid:
Amazon France or FNAC for the French translation, Amazon UK kindle edition, Amazon US kindle edition