Food This Month

Making fabulous home-made vanilla ice cream can be a party! Photo: Taegan Gell

– an orchids tale

By Carolyn Best

The vanilla flower, ephemeral orchid of Meso America, once grew prolifically in the lands of the Totonac, an indigenous people whose descendants still inhabit parts of the present-day Mexican states of Veracruz, Puebla and Hidalgo. Before clear-cutting devastated the region’s great forests, limitless numbers of vanilla vines enwrapped the trees, reaching up to the high jungle canopy. Inside the vine’s large pods, which only form if fertilization takes place, can be found an oily liquid full of tiny seeds – the precious vanilla.

While the Olmecs, Central America’s earliest civilization, discovered the value of wild vanilla, it was the Totonac who first domesticated the plant. Famed as the architects and builders of the elegant city of El Tajin in the state of Vera Cruz, which flourished between 600 CE and 1200 CE, they were still a powerful people at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

In the cosmology of the Totonac, vanilla is a gift given to them by the gods, the fragrance in their temples, the flavourer of their beverages. Uncultivated, vanilla yields few blooms, so the Totonacs folded down the vines to the height of a person and stimulated the flowering of many orchids on a single vine. The delicate blossom, which lives less than one day, is a hermaphrodite and bears both a male and a female organ. Self-pollination is blocked by a membrane which separates these organs within each flower, and it can only be achieved with the help of a hummingbird or the tiny Mexican “abeja de monte” (mountain bee), which alights on the vanilla flower, pushes aside the hood, then effects pollination while gathering nectar.

In 1480 CE, the Aztec came to the land of the Totonac and defeated them. The conquerors demanded annual tribute in the form of vast consignments of vanilla pods. In the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, Hernando Cortez first drank the sacred ambrosia of chocolate, vanilla, chili and corn presented to him by the emperor Lord Montezuma. The drink was served always in golden vessels. When Cortez returned to Europe, his ships carried not only gold but also sacks and sacks of cocoa beans and vanilla pods. It was not long before Europe was infatuated with vanilla. Royalty, bakers and perfumers could not be sated in their demand for what soon became, and remains today, the world’s most popular flavour and fragrance. Papantla, in the land of the Totonac, was known as the town that perfumes the world.

The French tried to establish vanilla plantations in their colonies in similar latitude throughout the South Seas. Though the vines flourished and flowered, they produced no pods. For 300 years, only Mexico could supply vanilla to meet the steadily increasing European demand. Among the Totonac were people who became wealthy exporting the pods. With their new riches, a number chartered transatlantic ships and travelled to France. These “people of the jaguar” were heirs to a heritage that valued monumental architecture and an advanced urban conception of cities. Some of the Totonac loved Paris and had architects design mansions for them there. It is said that one of these still stands on Rue St. Germain, Totonac reliefs incorporated into its façade.

In the mid-19th century, 12-year-old slave Edmund Albius made a discovery on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. By keen botanical observation, he deduced a method to pollinate the vanilla flower by human agency, using a bamboo sliver to cross the flower’s membrane and unite stamen and pistil to produce a pod. Albius taught his method throughout the lands where sea merchants, dreaming of wealth, had induced the vanilla vine to grow but where no bee or hummingbird effected pollination. Vanilla became the most labour-intensive crop in the world.

Today the Totonac hold only a small, though superior, share of the world’s vanilla trade. They still grow and tend vines around their houses with a religious devotion appropriate for a gift of the gods.

Carolyn Best is the former proprietor/chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom and is a regular Glebe Report contributor on food.

Party-Time Cooperative
Vanilla Ice Cream

Have available many pairs of willing hands (four years old and up) and a good quantity of crushed ice.

For each pair of hands, prepare one pint-size Ziploc freezer bag containing the following ingredients;

½ cup (125 ml) whipping cream
1 tbsp sugar
½ tsp vanilla

(It is a good idea to prepare these bags ahead of time and to have them as cold as possible.)

Place each bag in a 1-litre (quart) freezer bag. Add 6 tablespoons of coarse or kosher salt and fill each large bag half full with crushed ice. Close each one tight, pass a bag to each person, and have everyone energetically shake, toss and turn the bags for 5 to 10 minutes until an ice cream consistency is achieved. Turn into bowls and consume this non chemically stabilized treat quickly!

From Natasha’s Hollbach’s Thrifty Meals collection: meaty lentil soup, a meal on its own.
Photo: Marisa Romano

Natasha’s Thrifty Meals

By Marisa Romano

If you are looking for healthy, wholesome meals that don’t cost too much to make, Natasha Hollbach may have just what you want.

On October 16, as more than 190 countries celebrated World Food Day, Hollbach presented a collection of thrifty recipes to a sold-out crowd as part of Abbotsford’s Learn and Explore speaker series.

Established by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization in 1981, World Food Day promotes awareness of problems in food supply and distribution, and encourages actions to eradicate worldwide hunger. This year’s theme – Healthy Diets for a World Without Hunger – has a particular resonance in Canada where people are grappling with the updated food guide released by Health Canada last January. The latest recommendations present a new approach to healthy eating, from what should be on our plates to the way we should relate to food, stressing that healthy eating is more than the food we eat. The ongoing debate over the update includes concerns about the affordability of the recommended dietetic regime.

Two things caught Hollbach’s attention when she scanned the new food guide: It contains recommendations somewhat contrary to what she lives by, and it proposes a diet that is too expensive for many people in our communities. But she made peace with the new dietary advice; after all, it is directed at those who gorge on fast food and soft drinks. Then she started collecting nutritious recipes based on inexpensive ingredients that satisfy the rigour of the new guide. To this task, she brought a science background (she has a PhD in chemistry from McGill University and taught at Algonquin College for 30 years); the thriftiness of someone who survived the Great Depression; and the experience of a long and healthy life lived partly on a farm.

Her project started with a tour of Parkdale Food Centre where she took note of the staples offered to supplement the kitchens of members of that community. She looked into what sustains most world populations – rice, potatoes and plantain – and she tapped into personal recipes used to put healthy, wholesome meals on her family table for more than 65 years.

The result of her work: Thrifty Meals, a collection of 21 recipes. It includes a little bit of everything, from a Best-Ever Meatloaf to a Munchie Mix with pumpkin and sunflower seeds, from Cherry in Mid-Winter (fruit in gelatine – do you remember those days?) to homemade granola.

I was lucky enough to get a taste of Hollbach’s collection at the end of the summer when I received an invitation to celebrate the completion of her project at her dinner table. All the dishes she served were recipes from Thrifty Meals, and the meal was built to follow the vegetable/grains/proteins proportions recommended by Canada’s food guide. The three-course dinner started with lentil soup, followed by a cold salmon plate and her signature festive corn casserole, then a low-sugar banana cream pie for dessert.

The beverage of choice, though, was not water as recommended by Health Canada. “Water is for baptism,” Hollbach told an amused crowd at Abbotsford when describing her initial struggle with the new food guide. For the celebratory dinner, she opted for a glass of good wine, something she consumes daily as prescribed by herself. Is that perhaps the secret for such a long and healthy life?

Natasha Hollbach’s Thrifty Meals is available at the desk of Abbotsford Senior Centre for $5. All proceeds are donated to support programming at the centre. If you are looking for a practical stocking stuffer, do not look any further.

Marisa Romano is a foodie and scientist with a sense of adventure who appreciates interesting and nutritious foods that bring people together.

Natasha’s Lentil Soup


2 tbsp light oil such as canola
500 g sausages (Johnsonville Bratwurst recommended)
1 medium potato
2 large carrots
1½ cups red lentils, rinsed


Cut the sausages into bite-size pieces and sauté in a large stock pot.
Shred or dice the unpeeled potato and add to the sautéed sausages.
Shred or dice the carrots and add to the pot.
Add the lentils and 6 cups of water, preferably saved from cooking pasta or vegetables.
Bring to boil while stirring.
Cover and simmer 1 hour with a brick or heavy can on the lid.

Share this