One of the most useful spices in the kitchen is Vanilla, it adds a fragrant spicy note to sweet and savoury dishes and I use it extensively in my cooking. An early post of this blog gives a recipe for vanilla and honey glazed pork and a scoop of homemade vanilla ice-cream flecked with vanilla’s tiny seeds is never plain but is always a little gourmet treat.
I use vanilla as whole pods which I store in sugar and as vanilla extract which is convenient to use in a myriad of ways. Vanilla is supposedly the second most expensive spice after Saffron and I can believe that when I look at the price of a pod or a little bottle of extract in the supermarket. A little research for this post shows that Tesco’s sell a 118 ml bottle of Vanilla extract for £5.51 that is a whopping £46.70 a litre, and Vanilla pods are £1.68 each, a bargain!
Of course as the frugal gourmet the last thing I am going to do is handover wedges of my hard earned cash in a reverse supermarket sweep. Buying pods from a reliable source on ebay is frankly common sense, currently you can buy 80 grade A Madagascan Pods for £10.48 and that includes postage. This Christmas I bought a bunch of vanilla pods to distribute as presents to friends and family and some extract grade vanilla to make into vanilla extract.
The whole thing about vanilla quality, origin, essence and extract is quite confusing; most people have a sense that some products are better than others but can be a bit confused as to why. So here is a bit of an overview; Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people cultivated the vine of the vanilla orchid, which was called tlilxochitl by the Aztecs. The Spanish conquistador Cortés is credited with introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s along with a shed load of gold after his genocidal conquests of parts of what is now Latin America
The majority of the world’s vanilla is vanilla planifolia known as Bourbon vanilla named after the former name of Réunion, Île Bourbon. This variety of vanilla is also now known as Madagascan vanilla because its principal centre of production is Madagascar and neighbouring islands in the Indian Ocean, and Indonesia.
Vanilla is graded using a couple of systems but a simplified and most relevant system for a cook is below.
Length and Weight
|Grade A – also called Gourmet or Prime||15 cm and longer, 100 – 120 beans per pound||30 – 35% moisture content|
|Grade B – also called Extract||10 – 15 cm, 120 – 160 beans per pound||15 – 25% moisture content|
|Grade C||Less than 10cm|
It is worth noting that an estimated 95% of “vanilla” products actually contain artificial vanillin, which is produced from lignin a natural polymer found in wood pulp. The vanillin is extracted from the by-product of paper making when lignin is broken down using sulphur compounds. Vanillin is only one of over 170 aromatic chemical found in real vanilla so at best it is a very pale imitation of vanilla.
You can also get vanilla flavouring from non-plant sources, in America, Castoreum, the exudate from the castor sacs of mature beavers, which in English is the smelly bits of a beavers arse! Yummy, but at least the American Food and Drug Administration are correct in permitting the label natural flavouring in a product’s list of ingredients.
As I mentioned earlier I bought some extract grade vanilla off ebay, 25 pods for about £3.50 with a view to making my own extract as was getting a bit low on my Costco bargain bottle. It’s not a bad idea to make your own extract, the savings are substantial and just as importantly you know what’s in it. Commercial varies can contain sugar, colouring or other adulterants (Beaver arse alert!).
Making vanilla extract is easy but you do need some patience or a forgetful nature.
- 25 (or thereabouts) Extract grade vanilla pods
- A bottle of vodka or base spirit
Drink some vodka:-) Split open your vanilla pods and scrape out the seeds and add them to the vodka. Add the beans. Stopper and shake, store somewhere dark for about two or three months shaking occasionally. It’s ready when you cannot smell the alcohol.
Splitting the vanilla pod is an indicator of how vanilla got its name…. Vanilla comes from the Spanish Vainilla meaning little pod (remember Cortes the homicidal maniac was the first importer of vanilla) which is a diminutive of the latin vaina, from the latin vagina (sheath) which describes the way the pod must be split open to expose the seeds. Which came as a suprise to me, though not as a big a suprise as vanilla flavouring from a beavers arse.