Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This Side of Vanilla

Vanilla vine growing on tree
on Reunion Island
Although none of us in the Midwest grow vanilla, I thought you might like some vanilla talk as we begin to spiral into the Christmas baking frenzy. 

Cooks, especially bakers, have high standards for the quality, origin and where to buy their vanilla.  And don’t even hint you use anything vaguely called “vanilla substitute” because it’s like saying you drink Kool-Aid and call it Champagne.

Typically most quality vanilla is the Mexican species “Vaina planifolia”.   Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans cultivated the vine of the vanilla orchid “tilxochitl”.  The Melipona bee exclusively pollinated the flowers.

Cortes supposedly brought vanilla and chocolate to Europe in 1520.  Edmond Albius, a twelve year old slave on Reunion Island, figured out how to hand pollinate and global cultivation was started.

Today there are three other cultivars besides the original Mexican species.  V. fragrans grown in Madagascar, Reunion,  V. Tahitensis grown in the South Pacific and V. pompon in the West Indies, Central and South America.  Madagascar vanilla is the most widely sold and it’s called Bourbon vanilla (not as in whiskey but as in Bourbon is the former name of the Reunion Island.)  All vanilla is from the orchid family.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron because it’s so labor intensive.  Although it’s considered a spice, it’s actuality a fruit.  Prices are affected by weather, cartels similar to drug cartels, political instability, and demand.  The most influence has been the introduction of artificial vanilla that flavors 95% of packaged food products.

For gardeners:  Vanilla grows as a vine, climbing a support as high as the support goes (including tall trees.)  Left to grow very tall, it will produce few flowers.  Folding the plant down produces more flowers.  All plants outside Mexico must be hand pollinated.

The seed capsule is left on the plant to ripen and open at the end.  As it dries, it produces a diamond-dusted appearance that is the beginning of the vanilla smell.  For my chemist friends:  The compound vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) is the principal reason for the familiar smell.

Bean ready for picking.
Even in greenhouse conditions, it is impossible to grow vanilla outside a region within 10-20 degrees of the equator.  I will not give you the “how to” because you won’t be successful and it’s a waste of paper.

Artificial vanilla is a byproduct of the pulp used in papermaking and is broken down by using sulfites and sulfates.  The natural flavoring referred to in some food and beverages tasting of vanilla and raspberry is taken from the castor sacs of mature beavers.  These products are the reason some products have a faintly off vanilla smell – they aren’t really vanilla. 

Vanilla is graded by quality.  Each country has it’s own system.  The beans you buy should be long, free from blemishes and splits, have a moisture content that allows it to easily be bent. 
·      Grade A/Grade I:  15 cm or longer, 30-35% moisture content.  Called “Gourmet” or “Prime”
·      Grade B/Grade II:  10-15 cm, 15-25% moisture content.  Called “Extract fruits”.  – Vanilla extract comes from this grade:
Beans for sale.
Grace C/Grade III:  10 cm.

Vanilla is sold by:
1.     Whole pod.
2.     Powder (pure or blended with other ingredients.)
3.     Extract (contains at least 35% alcohol.)
4.     Vanilla Sugar (prepackaged.)

Bits and pieces of info: 
·      Store tightly wrapped in plastic, in an airtight jar and in the refrigerator up to six months.
·      1-teaspoon vanilla extract equals 1 inch of vanilla bean.
·      A little vanilla dabbed on the skin works as a mosquito repellent.
·      If your bean is getting dried bury in sugar for a few weeks; Use in coffee/tea, garnish sugar cookies, and etc.
·      Add a bean to 1-cup vodka, set aside for 6 weeks, and use as extract.

Good vanilla products may be purchased in a variety of stores including health food stores, Mexican groceries, and those specializing in baking supplies.  Keeping a variety of vanilla products allows you to use the grade most appropriate to your recipe.  The higher the cook temperature, the less premium vanilla counts.  This is the reason the best vanilla is almost exclusively used in ice cream.

If you’re a purist and enjoy the true wonderfully delicious taste of good vanilla, be prepared to pay more.  At the same time, be prepared to savior it’s flavor and fragrance as nothing remotely similar can stand up to the quality.  As with so many foods, real is better.
A little Vanilla humor.

All photos from the web.  Honestly, I do not know Vanilla Ice and I didn't take this picture.  Seriously! But, did you know he does a lot of philanthropic work with children? 
The real Robert M. VanWinkle is better!

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