One of the most expensive spices, after saffron and cardamom.
Ripe fruit/pod, not ‘bean’ as it is often wrongly called. The 6-8 inch long pod contains thousands of tiny seeds which, along with the oil around them contain most of the fragrance and flavour. The tiny black speckles you see in good quality vanilla ice c
An orchid that grows as a climbing vine in a 20 degree band on both sides of the equator. It can climb epiphytically (i.e. for support not nutrients) up other trees, as it does in the wild, or poles and specially grown support trees when cultivated. – The support trees are pruned to an umbrella shape to help provide some shade for the orchid. The orchids are trained up the poles or trees, and then across bamboos at heights of around 1.5m. They are trained at this height so that the flowers can be easily pollinated by hand. – The flowers are unusual in structure and only the small Melipona bee can pollinate them naturally – these are only found in Mexico. Everywhere else, hand pollination with a bamboo splinter or toothpick is a necessity. The yellow or orange flowers open once, and for one day only, and a period of dry weather is preferable for this. – In India they will open between December and April. Once it has been pollinated, ideally during a sunny morning, the flower closes within about half an hour. Days later the flower withers to leave behind the part of the stem that will grow into the pod. The pods are ready to be picked when its tip turns yellow – too early and the flavour will not develop properly, too late, even by just a few days, and the pod will split.
The aromatic, sticky brown/black vanilla pods that we know are not simply plucked from the plant ready to use, they have to undergo a lengthy curing process first as fresh vanilla pods have no aroma. – The pods are dipped twice into hot water for a
One of the most expensive spices, after saffron and cardamom. – High quality pods will be oily, fleshy and supple with little crystals formed on them. The crystals are called ‘givre’ – French for ‘frosted’. If the pods are dry, thin, brittle or reddish brown, they should be avoided. – Fresh pods should keep for up to six months in an airtight container in the fridge. – Vanilla tends to be used mainly in sweet dishes, ice cream, cookies and sponge cakes being the most obvious examples. However, it is becoming increasingly used in all types of savoury dishes by more adventurous cooks, where it can subtly lift and smooth other flavours. – As already mentioned, the flavour is mostly in the seeds and the oil, but the pod ‘outer’ also contains plenty of flavour. Depending upon how you use the pod, you may be able to use it more than once. You can use whole to steep in a liquid, and then remove it, dry it, and use it again. A pod can also be cut lengthways with a knife, and the seeds and oils scooped out with a spoon for use in cooking. The emptied pod can then be dropped into your sugar container to make vanilla sugar. Some store their unused vanilla pods in sugar, and take them out to cook whole with them before returning them to the sugar to use again. – Vanillin can be synthesized fairly simply, and is fairly widely available for use instead of vanilla. However, the there is much more to vanilla than just vanillin. There are a couple of major aroma components, but over 130 trace compounds have been found in vanilla extract, and these go along way towards contributing to the flavour of vanilla. They are also the reason that the taste of real vanilla is beyond comparison with artificial. – Vanilla extract, made by extracting the flavour from pods with alcohol, is variable in quality. Some people consider the better quality extracts to be fine to cook with, others won’t go near it. The extract is easier to use, especially since many recipes give clear indications on how much to use.
The Totonaco Indians of Mexico are thought to have discovered the wonders of the vanilla plant. When the Aztecs conquered them, they inherited this knowledge. They used vanilla, or ‘tlilxochitl’ as they knew it, as a flavour in their chocolate drink called xocoatl. It was this drink that so beguiled Cortez during the Spanish conquest of the Americas that he took the plant back to Spain in the 16th century. The Spanish named it ‘Vainilla’ which means little pod because it reminded them of the ‘vainas’ (pods) of legumes. – Cultivation in Europe was largely unsuccessful for three centuries, and all vanilla was still sourced from Mexico. The French took the plant to La Reunion island in the 19th century and, whilst it grew, the fruit would not come due to lack of pollination – there was no Melipona bee (see above). It is thought that in 1841 a 12 year old slave discovered the secret of manual pollination, and cultivation of vanilla has grown ever since.
Vanilla is thought to be one of the secret ingredients in Coca-Cola. – As well as a food flavouring, it is used extensively in perfumes and also to flavour medicines. – Vanilla is the only edible fruit found in the orchid family.
The Ayurveda was written long before vanilla was known outside of Mexico. The Aztecs, and many since, thought it to be an aphrodisiac, although it is now not really considered as such. There are claims it has calming qualities and helps to reduce fever.