From Madagascar or from the laboratory?
The fascinating vanilla world
The scent of vanilla always has something comforting.
A warm vanilla pudding has meant a feeling of well-being since childhood.
But this is only the small side entrance into the fascinating
world of one of the noblest spices.
For luxury, France is always a good address. Île Bourbon is the former name of the island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, which can be found about 700 km east of Madagascar and about 200 km away from Mauritius.
In 1822, Frenchmen brought cuttings of the vanilla plant to the then island of Île Bourbon for the first time. To this day, the name bourbon vanilla has an excellent sound that associates royal esteem. Smart Branding.
The vanilla plant originates from Mexico and was already appreciated by the Aztecs as an additional flavor in cocoa. Spain quickly recognized the value of the spice and were able to enforce a vanilla monopoly in the global spice trade for centuries.
In Mexico, the hummingbird was the natural source of pollination for the vanilla flower, which blooms for only one day. It was not until much later that it was discovered that the vanilla flower could also be hand-pollinated; the prerequisite for later obtaining the natural spice of vanilla from the pods.
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), the largest vanilla growing areas are in Madagascar and Indonesia. The high price for natural vanilla results from the labor- and time-intensive cultivation and further processing.
Mostly no trace of vanilla
Vanillin is only one of the more than one hundred aroma-active substances in vanilla. Since the sweet smell and warm taste of vanilla is perceived as pleasant by most people, the flavoring agent vanillin is one of the most frequently used ingredients for flavoring foods worldwide.
The high market price of natural vanilla suggests that the vast majority of products on the market that promise vanilla flavor do not contain natural vanilla.
The law on food labeling helps to classify. Look at the package: If a product’s name contains the word vanilla, it has at least some natural vanilla flavoring, vanilla extract, vanilla beans or even vanilla pulp. Then a vanilla bean may also be depicted on the packaging.
Vanilla flavoring substances originate from chemical-physical processes. With the term “natural flavoring agent”, microorganisms are responsible for building up the vanillin from natural sources. Purely chemosynthetic processes leading to vanillin aromas must not be called “natural flavoring substances”.
The illusion of black dots and yellow color
Finished products in stores usually contain no or only minimal traces of natural vanilla. The black dots that we like to see as proof that real vanilla is used in these products come from finely ground vanilla beans.
If these pods are carefully selected and then carefully crushed in a very gentle process, they contain quite natural vanilla scent. But careful and gentle means effort that is not (can not) be spent in most cases.
The black dots, held as evidence of the use of high quality vanilla, are often just illusion
Lets face it: The black dots in most products, such as puddings, ice creams or crémes, that promise vanilla flavor are pure illusion. They usually come from ground pods, but the taste usually does not come from them.
Also, the rich, yellow color we associate with vanilla comes from the egg yolk found in many desserts that use vanilla. The vanilla plant has a beautiful bright yellow flower, but who has actually seen it in nature?
If the product name is “vanilla flavor”, no vanilla bean may be shown on the package and you can safely assume that the product only corresponds to the common perception of vanilla flavor, but has nothing to do with natural vanilla. About 96 percent of the world’s demand for vanillin does not come from a freshly opened vanilla bean.
On a day when nothing works out, the warm vanilla pudding nevertheless does not fail to have a comforting effect.
The real thing
If you want to experience not just the illusion but the complex, multi-faceted flavor of good vanilla, there is only one way: using vanilla beans in your own kitchen.
Place the pod on a board and slit it once lengthwise with a pointed knife. Using the tip of a knife or a small teaspoon, scrape out the black seeds and the inside of the pod wall.
The scraped out peel still contains a lot of aromas and can therefore be used very well with the seeds for boiling in milk and cream or for flavoring sauces.
If, as you scrape out the seeds, your hands become slightly oily and it’s difficult to get the sticky seeds from the tip of your knife and fingertips into the liquid you want, you’re in luck. Then your vanilla bean was of particularly fresh quality. A very slight sheen on the vanilla stick is also a good sign.
Anyone who has experienced the strong aroma of a top-quality vanilla bean (botanically correct actually capsule) is thrilled and thinks wistfully of how many dry, brittle vanilla beans he has had in his hand, even though they were stored in a glass tube without light and heat.
There are very large differences in the quality of vanilla and dealers where fresh vanilla beans have a higher turnover than elsewhere.
Three types of vanilla worth knowing
Vanilla Planifolia or Bourbon vanilla
The aroma of vanilla is strong and can be slightly reminiscent of wood or leather. The name bourbon vanilla is also a geographical indication. The vanilla so designated must come from the so-called Bourbon Islands (Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion and the Seychelles).
If the quality is excellent, the vanilla is black-brown and shiny oily.
Vanilla tahitensis or Tahitian vanilla
In some restaurants, you will see the specification Tahitian vanilla in the description of a dessert. Strike. We are relatively sure, without having researched this particular case, that the Titanic’s dessert cart contained some desserts with vanilla of the best provenance. Would have been a shame if you had let that dessert cart go by.
Many good cooks love the expressive Tahitian vanilla, which has a rather soft, floral aroma. Tahiti vanilla capsules are softer to the touch and often wider. The color is a dark brown
Vanilla pampona or “spiced vanilla
Cigar aficionados would probably compare this vanilla most likely with a Cohiba Robusto. Best premium quality and a wider format than the previously mentioned vanilla varieties. The seeds are also larger compared to the better known vanilla varieties.
In terms of taste, this large vanilla species (the pods can be 20 cm and longer) is similar to bourbon vanilla. This type of vanilla, which often comes from Java, requires a longer ripening period and is relatively rare in the trade.
The more moist and oily the vanilla bean still is, the better. The slightly wider bars have an advantage here, as they do not dry out as easily. The fresher the better. If you are lucky enough (very rare) to see small white crystals on the vanilla spot that look like sugar, then you have the best possible quality in your hands.
However, only if the spots that look like crystallized sugar are irregularly distributed. If the pod looks evenly coated with sugar, it is almost certainly a fake.
The price is some indication of the quality if you buy the vanilla from a trusted dealer. In addition, the vanilla price has been subject to extreme fluctuations in recent years. Tropical storms did not stop at vanilla plants. Rising temperatures worldwide and increasing drought are also not ideal for vanilla, which botanically belongs to the orchid plants.
Fair and transparent?
A vanilla tree bears its first flowers only after three years and after pollination, which in most cases is done by hand, it takes another 8 months for the first pods to appear on the plant.
In the past, the high fluctuations in vanilla prices and the many stages from cultivation of the vanilla plant, pollination, harvesting and extraction of the pods (heating, steaming, drying in the sun, drying in the shade, storage for several months, selection), as well as the subsequent commercial stages, have meant that vanilla farmers have received only a very small percentage of the high final price of vanilla for their work. Planting of vanilla has therefore declined sharply in some countries.
There are now a number of initiatives that promote fair and transparently traded vanilla and support vanilla farmers in many countries. More and more countries that expect these initiatives to lead to more stable prices, such as Uganda, are again planting more vanilla. Since the vanilla orchid plant grows well with other plants, such as coffee, mono-plantations are not necessary. So there is much to be said for the real vanilla.
The pure pleasure
The scent that a good vanilla bean gives off as soon as it is opened and released is beguiling. When the contents of the vanilla bean and the bean itself are subsequently warmed in warm milk or cream to be used for desserts, cakes or homemade vanilla ice cream, a delicate fragrance wafts through the kitchen.
No time to bake or make a nice dessert yourself? Then on your next visit to Brittany, we recommend the Café Grain de Vanille in Cancale, whose owner, former Michelin-starred chef Olivier Roellinger, runs a spice shop and is, of course, a vanilla aficionado. Try there the millefeuille à la vanilla.
If you prefer a spice dealer from Franconia, our tip would be Ingo Holland, Altes Gewürzamt in Klingenberg am Main.
The vanilla beans can be ordered online from both spice retailers and it is worth testing the types described above in comparison.
The classic French cuisine loves sauces with vanilla with fish and shellfish. But also porcini mushrooms, veal or dishes with tomato sauce benefit from vanilla. Basically, you can’t go wrong. Like Alfons Schubeck, simply throw a piece of vanilla bean into the pan from time to time.
All other days
The best qualities of vanilla are used for the production of high quality perfumes. Therefore, you can also wear the scent of vanilla as an accessory. Perfumes with a high vanilla content are, for example, Jicky and Shalimar, each from the house of Guerlain, Sublime Vanille by Creed, Un bois vanille by Serge Lutens, Signature of the Sun Vaniglia by Aqua die Parma, Vanille Insensée by Atelier Cologne or Vanille Exquise by Annick Goutal.
And if the aroma of a wine or whiskey reminds you slightly of vanilla, in the best case it is because both were aged and stored in barrique barrels. In the more favorable case, the addition of wood chips or wood shavings were responsible for giving the wine a vanilla-like note.
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