It is impossible to imagine life without vanilla: from the first taste of vanilla ice cream in childhood, to the black specks of bean floating in an exquisitely rich creme brulee. But while vanilla may be seen as the universal flavouring for myriad ingredients, its history is anything but ordinary.
A sought-after commodity, vanilla was commercially developed away from its Mexican origins after the international cartel that controlled its pricing and distribution disbanded.
While traditionally Madagascar has been the largest commercial producer (responsible for up to 97% of the world’s vanilla), Indonesia is increasing its plantings and may prove to be a reliable source of supply in future.
The vanilla bean is the fruit of a climbing orchid (vanilla planifolia) native to the tropical forests of Central America. Of the thousands of flowering orchids, vanilla planifolia is the only one to bear edible fruit. The Aztecs were probably the first to discover its culinary use by adding it to chocolate for aroma and flavouring.
Curing the pods is a slow and labour-intensive process, involving scalding, sweating, fermentation, drying, turning and maturation of the beans, all of which may take several months. This results in the pods turning from yellow/green to a deep rich brown with strongly aromatic vanillin crystals forming a ‘frosting’ on the surface of the bean. A good bean will have strong, rich, clearly defined, sweet, spicy aromatics, with a natural vanillin content in excess of 2.25%. It will be moist and slightly sticky to touch.
Vanilla extract and essence are also popular, but there is no substitute for the real thing and many of the artificial or ‘identical’ products are misleadingly labelled. Synthetic vanilla presents sickly, overblown aromas contrasting starkly with the persistent intensity of natural vanilla.
Uses & Tips
- Store vanilla beans in an airtight container in a cool place, or place in a container of castor sugar (which will create a deliciously perfumed sugar).
- When ready to use, slit the bean lengthways and scrape out the small back seeds which contain most of the vanillin. The pods can be returned to the sugar canister where they will continue to add flavour and aroma for many months.
- As well as the best-loved flavouring for ice-cream, vanilla is an essential ingredient in the pastry kitchen, where it is used in all types of cakes and custards to enhance and intensify flavours and add its own inimitable aroma.