Is there a baked good in the entire history of the universe that wasn’t enhanced by a bit of vanilla? Answer: no. As a baking fiend my pantry is full of different varieties – the pods, the paste, the essence – and all of them get a pretty good workout. But up until researching this post I didn’t really know too much (aka anything) about this gorgeous tasting and divinely fragrant little gift to the world. So…
What is it?
Vanilla, along with cardamom and saffron, is one of the most expensive spices in the world. It is found in the seeds of the orchid vine vanilla planifolia which is native to Mexico. Obtaining true vanilla is a lengthy process, as the beans are slowly fermented then seeds extracted and ground. Pollination is also difficult as specific conditions are required. A method of hand pollination was developed in Reunion in 1841 – the variety of vanilla grown there and in Madagascar is called Bourbon vanilla, after the island’s former name.
The vanilla flavour (from the vanillin) is easily chemically synthesised from clove oil, waste material from the paper and wood-pulp industries and petrochemical products – YUM!! This artificial vanilla is very close to the natural flavour and so the export of real vanilla is in decline. About 97% of the world’s supply of vanilla is now synthetic… so if you want to be sure of getting the real deal, get the pods people!
Where is it from?
It is native to Mexico but is now grown in Tahiti, Madagascar and Indonesia. Tahitian vanilla is said to be fruity and spicy, Madagascan the most common, Mexican spicier and richer.
Any health benefits?
When vanilla became popular in 17th century Europe it was used for a huge variety of things – stomach ulcers, sedation and seduction – yes, it has long been regarded as an aphrodisiac.
The flavour comes from the seed pod – the bean, if you will. All beans contain thousands of seeds – those little black grains you see in anything that has been made with true vanilla pods eg vanilla bean ice cream*
Vanilla is rich, full, aromatic and powerful and highly fragrant. Check out some ideas for vanilla’s best playmates.
*If I was an ice cream manufacturer who wanted to sell shedloads of ice cream to gullible consumers, I would sprinkle any old black dust into it and call it ‘vanilla bean’. Cheaper to make. Sell at a premium. Make lots of lovely money. Lucky for you, dear readers, I am not in the ice cream business.
Ideas for vanilla:
Vanilla will enhance every fruit. Every fruit. Think apples, raspberries, apricots… whatever. Vanilla and chocolate – this was its only role back in Incan times: to flavour chocolate. It is a standard addition to cakes, biscuits, pies, anything sweet.
But how about some savoury ideas? I would think about trying a pairing with its close partners anise and cardamom in some dishes – tomato-based things in particular (tomato being a fruit).
Aside: did you know that Galliano has vanilla and anise as its core ingredients?
The fun fact.
The word ‘vanilla’ derives from the Latin word ‘vagina’. In ancient Rome, vagina meant ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’. The rascals over in Spain adapted that word to ‘vaina’ which then resulted in the diminutive form ‘vainilla’ meaning ‘little sheath’. As the vanilla pod resembles a sheath, vanilla got its name. Now try eating vanilla ice cream without thinking about that. Ha.