THE FAS­TID­I­OUS SPICE

The story of vanilla is one of con­quests, trav­els over trop­i­cal seas and a slave boy’s clever idea

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS SIM EE WAUN

Think vanilla and the first thing that pops into mind is vanilla ice cream. Lib­er­ally speck­led and gen­tly fra­grant, vanilla is the per­fect flavour­ing that en­riches ap­ple pies and choco­late cake. Al­most all home cooks would reach for their bot­tle of vanilla flavour­ing as they cream their cake bat­ter or turn out the cookie dough. But few would give a thought to the fact that af­ter saf­fron, vanilla is the next most ex­pen­sive spice in the world.

Its pedi­gree is im­pres­sive. Vanilla comes from the orchid fam­ily, which is the largest and old­est flow­er­ing plant in the world. And in this au­gust fam­ily, vanilla is its only edi­ble fruit. For one so rare, it is un­sur­pris­ingly fas­tid­i­ous and ex­acts a trib­ute from those who wish to con­sume it. Be­cause vanilla is the most labour-in­ten­sive agri­cul­tural prod­uct in the world, thus also mak­ing it very ex­pen­sive.

Af­ter it is planted, the vine cut­ting takes up to one and a half years to flower. Then it has to be care­fully hand pol­li­nated—there lies an­other story—and the pods left on the vine for an­other nine months. Once har­vested by hand, the pods go through a long process of cur­ing and drying.

They are first blanched in hot wa­ter, then placed in con­tain­ers to sweat for up to two days. Then they go through a process of sun­ning in the day, and sweat­ing at night, for any­where be­tween five and 15 days. Next, they are left in racks to dry slowly for up to a month. Fi­nally they are bun­dled, then shipped to their fi­nal des­ti­na­tions. All in all, it takes about one year from flower to fin­ish.

Orig­i­nat­ing in Mex­ico, Cen­tral and north­ern South Amer­ica, vanilla was, at its ear­li­est, known to the Aztecs who con­sumed it along with choco­late. Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors later brought it to Europe and even­tu­ally on to the rest of the world. As a re­sult, vanilla is now grown in other parts of the world, par­tic­u­larly in the moist hu­mid re­gions be­tween 15.5 de­grees north and south of the equa­tor. These days, the ma­jor­ity of the world’s vanilla come from Mada­gas­car in Africa, but they are also cul­ti­vated in Tahiti, In­done­sia, Papua New Guinea, In­dia, the Caribbean and of course, Mex­ico.

But vanilla’s in­ter­na­tional prop­a­ga­tion did not come eas­ily. While the cli­mate in these lat­i­tudes were ideal and thus should mean cul­ti­va­tion suc­cess, the early grow­ers found vanilla frus­trat­ingly dif­fi­cult to grow. In 1836, a botanist Charles Mor­ren fi­nally fig­ured out the root of the prob­lem. In Mex­ico, it was the melipona bee that pol­li­nated the vanilla flow­ers. With­out its help, the flower could not pol­li­nate. The an­swer came most un­ex­pect­edly five years later on the is­land of Re­union. A slave boy called Ed­mond Al­bius took to pol­li­nat­ing his charges by hand. His method was so ef­fec­tive that it spread to neigh­bour­ing is­lands and even­tu­ally back to Mex­ico. And it is Al­bius’ method which is still used for al­most all vanilla crops around the world to­day. Then again, con­sid­er­ing that the flower blooms for less than a day, it is no sim­ple task to pol­li­nate the flow­ers. The win­dow of op­por­tu­nity must be care­fully watched and pounced upon, and the pol­li­na­tion done just so to en­sure a pod emerges as a re­sult.

With all these in­con­ve­niences, it is lit­tle won­der that pure vanilla is a very ex­pen­sive thing.

IM­I­TA­TIONS AND SUB­STI­TUTES

Fra­grant, sweet and com­plex, vanilla is made of up to 300 flavour com­po­nents. Of these, the main com­po­nent of the bean and what we most closely as­so­ciate with vanilla is a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring chem­i­cal com­pound called vanillin.

The purest form of vanilla is, of course, the pod and seeds it­self. There are sev­eral types of vanilla bean which vary in flavour. Bour­bon vanilla—named af­ter the old name for Re­union—is known of its sweet, rum­like flavour and ac­counts for up to 85 per cent of the world’s vanilla. Con­sid­ered the best of beans, they re­fer to vanilla grown in Mada­gas­car and other is­lands in the In­dian Ocean in­clud­ing Re­union and Co­moros. Mex­i­can vanilla, which makes up only about five per cent of the world’s pro­duc­tion, of­fers up spicy, woody char­ac­ter­is­tics. In­done­sian vanilla, 25 per cent of the global sup­ply, has some smoky el­e­ments to it. Tahi­tian vanilla is flo­ral and fruity, with less of a vanilla flavour. While Papua New Guinea pro­duces Tahi­tian beans, they are not as plump and in­tensely flavoured as those from Tahiti.

Vanillin can also be syn­the­sised from clove oil, pine sap and even from wood pulp, a by-prod­uct of the pa­per in­dus­try. Given the high price of real vanilla, im­i­ta­tions are an en­tic­ing, cheaper op­tion.

Next to get­ting the bean it­self is to use pure vanilla ex­tract. Ac­cord­ing to US spec­i­fi­ca­tions, some­thing thus named will con­tain 35 per cent al­co­hol, 13.38 per cent vanilla bean ex­trac­tives and pu­ri­fied wa­ter. It may also con­tain some sugar, corn syrup and caramel colour­ing.

Next down the rung is pure vanilla flavour which is made from vanilla ex­trac­tives, pu­ri­fied wa­ter and pos­si­bly sugar and corn syrup. It does not have any al­co­hol,

but con­tains propy­lene gly­col, a vis­cous colour­less liq­uid, in­stead.

Other nat­u­ral flavours are made from wheat germ ex­tract and other plants that con­tain vanillin, while im­i­ta­tion vanilla is made us­ing syn­thetic vanillin made in a lab­o­ra­tory. Most of it is a by-prod­uct of pa­per pulp used in pa­per­mak­ing.

WAYS WITH VANILLA

For its high price, thank­fully noth­ing of the pod and seeds need be wasted. Use pure vanilla when its flavours are front and cen­tre of the dish you plan to make. For in­stance, vanilla ice cream or a panna cotta. Scrape off the seeds di­rectly into the cook­ing cus­tard or bat­ter. De­pend­ing on the amount you have cook­ing, use one-third to the en­tire pod of seeds. Then push a spent pod into a jar of sugar to in­fuse and make vanilla sugar. Vanilla is great with poached or stewed fruits too—sim­ply add the pod to the poach­ing liq­uid. When you’re done, save the syrup for driz­zling over desserts and ice cream.

For a savoury al­ter­na­tive, make vanilla salt us­ing sea salt or fleur de sel. Sprin­kle it over choco­late chip cook­ies, caramels and co­conut milk based cus­tards and pud­dings, or over roasted fish, lob­ster, car­rots and prawns.

Fi­nally, try mak­ing your own vanilla ex­tract. If you’re feel­ing ex­trav­a­gant, slice three or four vanilla pods length­wise and steep them in a cup of vodka or, for added buzz, cognac. Keep them in a dark cool place, and shake it from time to time.

ITS PEDI­GREE IS IM­PRES­SIVE. VANILLA COMES FROM THE ORCHID FAM­ILY, WHICH IS THE LARGEST AND OLD­EST FLOW­ER­ING PLANT IN THE WORLD. AND IN THIS AU­GUST FAM­ILY, VANILLA IS ITS ONLY EDI­BLE FRUIT. FOR ONE SO RARE, IT IS UN­SUR­PRIS­INGLY FAS­TID­I­OUS AND EX­ACTS A TRIB­UTE FROM THOSE WHO WISH TO CON­SUME IT.

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