What is Vanilla?
Next to saffron and cardamom, vanilla is the worlds next most expensive spice. Growers are known to “brand” their beans with pin pricks before they can be harvested, to identify the owner and prevent theft. Vanilla is native to Mexico, where it is still grown commercially. Vanilla was used by the Aztecs for flavouring their royal drink xocolatl – a mixture of cocoa beans, vanilla and honey. Cortez brought vanilla back to Europe in the sixteenth century, after having observed Montezuma drinking the cocoa concoction.
It has many non-culinary uses, including aromatizing perfumes, cigars and liqueurs. Europeans prefer to use the bean, while North Americans usually use the extract. Substances called “vanilla flavour” don’t contain vanilla at all, being synthesized from eugenol (clove oil), waste paper pulp, coal tar or ‘coumarin’, found in the tonka bean, whose use is forbidden in several countries.
Ice cream producers are unlikely to point out that their most popular flavour derives its name from the Latin word vagina. For ancient Romans, vagina meant sheath or scabbard. The Spanish adopted the word as vaina, which developed a diminutive form, vainilla, meaning “little sheath”. The Spanish made this diminutive the name of the plant because its pods resemble sheaths.
Smell: highly fragrant and aromatic
Flavour: rich, full, aromatic and powerful. Madagascar and Mexico making the best quality. Indonesian and Tahitian vanilla is weaker and considered inferior.
Preparation and Storage
Vanilla extract is made by percolating alcohol and water through chopped, cured beans, somewhat like making coffee. Vanilla extract is very powerful, a few drops sufficing for most uses. Vanilla bean is a bit more time consuming to use than the extract, but imparts the stongest vanilla flavour without the alcohol of extract. To flavour a liquid base for creme sauces, puddings, ice creams, etc., allow one bean per pint to steep in the liquid by boiling and allowing to cool for an hour before removing the bean. This can be repeated a few times if the bean is washed after use, dried and kept airtight. Ground vanilla can also be used, but use half as much and leave in the liquid. Many recipes call for slitting the bean lengthwise and scraping out the tiny black seeds. Airtight storage is necessary, otherwise the aroma will dissipate. A good way to store whole vanilla is to bury it in sugar. Use a jar with a tight-fitting lid that will hold about a pound of sugar, burying the bean so that no light can reach it. After 2 -3 weeks the sugar tastes of vanilla and can be used in coffee or in other recipes and the bean can be removed for other uses and returned to the sugar after cleaning. Keep topping up the sugar.
Health Benefits of Vanilla
From the time of the Aztecs, vanilla was considered an aphrodisiac. This reputation was much enhanced in 1762 when a German study found that a medication based on vanilla extract cured impotence — all 342 smiling subjects claimed they were cured. It was also once believed that vanilla was a febrifuge, used to reduce fevers, though it is rarely used for any medicinal purposes other than as a pharmaceutical flavouring.