The flavour is everywhere but the authentic spice is divine, not least because it’s the second most expensive in the world after saffron. Vanilla, the dark brown to black oily fruit of an orchid and the sticky seeds within, is worth shelling out for, as its effect in food is incomparable with that of its synthetic substitute.
Vanilla comes from the orchid family, which has no less than 20,000 members. Of these, 150 varieties produce "vanilla pods" but only two of them, Bourbon and Tahitian, are widely cultivated for commercial use in countries including Reunion, Madagascar, India, China, Indonesia and Mexico. The less common Tahitian pod has less vanillin, one of the major compounds that gives this spice its rich, sweet, heady liqueur-like taste and aroma.
Vanilla (from the Spanish "vainilla", meaning little sheath) was discovered by the Spanish in the New World. The Aztecs in Mexico, who prized their cacao and vanilla beans, introduced the conquistadors to both in a drink called xocolatl (chocolate) … and once it was tasted in Europe in the 1500s, the world couldn’t get enough.
The high cost of vanilla is due to the very labour-intensive nature of its cultivation. For starters, the flowers need to be pollinated by hand (in their native lands, that tricky job had been done by hummingbirds and a particular species of bee – a secret that gave Mexico a long monopoly on cultivation). Plantation workers across the tropics pollinate thousands of orchids every day, with a small window of opportunity: a flower that blooms at sunrise dies by sunset if not pollinated. The green pods are hand-picked and over months of drying, sweating and curing, they shrivel and turn blackish brown.
Use vanilla in ...
custards, baking, ice-cream, fruit desserts, whipped cream or mixed through sugar for baking or sprinkling over desserts. It matches beautifully with shellfish, playing on the sweetness of lobster or prawns without sweetening the dish. Look for recipes that marry it with fish, roast chicken, duck or pork. Slice along the length of the pod with a small sharp knife and scrape out the tiny black seeds. Put the seeds straight into the pan or pot, and throw in the cut pods to extract as much flavour as possible. Remove the pods at the end of cooking.
Vanilla goes with ...
eggs, milk, cream, butter, sugar, coconut, stone fruits, dried fruits, apples, banana, berries, citrus, yoghurt, rice, nuts, chocolate, coffee, lobster, scallops, duck, pork, cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, cassia, cloves, allspice, ginger, mint, liqueurs.