Thursday, November 18, 2010

Intoxicating Vanilla

One of my favorite childhood memories was watching my mother bake. And perhaps even more enjoyable were the scents that wafted out of the kitchen. Sometimes my mom allowed one of us kids to help her with some simple task, such as pouring a spoonful or two of vanilla extract into whatever batter she was mixing.

Even as a child, the scent of that vanilla was intoxicating. The simple act of unscrewing the cap on the dark brown bottle released its heady perfume. I’d been tempted to drink the stuff, so appealing was its smell, but either my mother talked me out of it or I was suspicious of its dark, syrup-like appearance.

These days, I’m still tempted to drink the stuff—or to eat a vanilla bean whole—but I no longer find the stuff suspect whether it’s in solid or liquid form. All that matters is that it be pure.

Like so many other things, Americans are discovering that pure foods have more flavor than their artificial counterparts. Some years ago, many a prudent baker might have eschewed pricey pure vanilla for its cheaper, imitation counterpart. Well, not any longer.

And there are options available today that weren’t widely available even a dozen years ago. When I was a kid, only vanilla extract was available. Currently, you can find dried beans from any of the four spots vanilla is grown: Mexico, Madagascar, Indonesia and Tahiti. Vanilla from the former two is considered superior, while that from the latter two is generally weaker in flavor and fruitier. For an aromatic and flavor-packed addition to a dessert, whole beans can be shaved or ground over ice cream, cake, fruit or added to whipped cream for an aromatic and flavorful addition.

The story of vanilla reads like an epic novel, with idiosyncratic aristocrats, an enterprising slave, bandits, tycoons, Aztec kings and simple farmers. Vanilla, which originated in Mexico, is grown successfully in only a few areas of the world. Produced from the dried pods of a flowering orchid vine, vanilla is as difficult to cultivate as it is tasty. For an enlightening read on the history of vanilla, check out Tim Ecott’s Vanilla.

If you’d like to get some pure vanilla extract or beans, you can find them at many grocery stores. And some of the premium extracts, such as Nielsen-Massey’s (one of the largest purveyors of pure vanilla and located in suburban Chicago) can be found at Williams-Sonoma or on-line. Another good source is the Spice House or many Whole Foods locations.

While vanilla is one of the priciest flavorings in the world, most people involved in the business of growing, buying and selling the beans aren’t making much money. One of the reasons vanilla is so costly is because each flower must be hand pollinated, a tedious and intensive task which is largely performed by farmers who live a simple existence. It’s the painstaking process of growing, drying and shipping this extraordinary, flavorful bean that makes it so expensive—but ultimately worth it.

Photos Courtesy Vanilla-Trade

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