Thursday, 14 April 2011

Vanilla Vanity

There's nothing plain about vanilla. From baking cakes to making ice cream, it can add a subtle depth of flavour that we often take for granted.

I have to admit that I knew very little about the spice until I did some research the other day. While I knew that the majority of vanilla flavouring is a synthetic chemical (vanillin), I didn't know it was derived from wood pulp in paper mills. The bulk of this is used in the manufacture of mass produced ice cream and, of course, chocolate.

If you think vanilla is boring, it's more than likely that vanillin is to blame. Real vanilla is complex; it has over 200 compounds while the fake stuff has only one. The vanilla orchid is a fickle plant and requires a lot of careful cultivation to pollinate and harvest. If you think the pods are expensive, their price reflects the time and effort that goes into their production.

Nowadays, there are three main types of vanilla available; Madagascan, Mexican and Tahitian. Until the mid 19th century, Mexico was the main producer of vanilla but as colonial cultivation spread, it's the Madagascan bean that appears in most of our supermarket products. Madagascan or Bourbon vanilla is possibly the finest and most versatile form of the spice while Tahitian beans are the strongest, their complex aromatics most suited to perfumes and such-like.

However, a lot has to be said for the Mexican variety which is reputed to have a stronger, smoother and richer flavour. There are plenty of shops online selling pods and paste, the latter of which I would strongly recommend, particularly for ice cream and custard recipes. A little goes a long way and the little black flecks make any dessert look gourmet.

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