The more you come to know about vanilla, the more it seems the age-old descriptor “plain vanilla” is meant ironically—like a big guy whose nickname is ‘Tiny.’ As the only variety out of 25,000 species of orchid that produces an agriculturally useful product, vanilla is literally unique—and it could hardly be more exotic: It’s one of the most complex flavors in existence (with more than 200 flavor compounds), it’s the second-most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) and its history is steeped in intrigue, ancient civilizations, piracy, and brutal conquest. Oh, and there’s a 12-year-old, child-prodigy slave with a starring role.


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