Vanilla is my favourite spice. I love it so much I named my car after it and dedicated an entire chapter in my book ‘Sweet’ to its exotic goodness. It also plays tricks on your mind. When you smell it your brain registers that it is sweet when in fact it it’s not, and when infused into other food it can send you straight to a delicious heavenly place.
I was thrilled to get the chance to visit a vanilla plantation whilst on my recent trip to Reunion in September. We stayed at the luxurious 5 star resort Lux* St Gilles while visiting this wild Indian Ocean Island which we explored for 3 action packed days. You can see a few of my pics from the trip here.
Vanilla is an incredibly labour intensive crop so it’s no surprise that it is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. From hand pollination through the harvesting, curing, drying and the maturation phase, human hands comes in contact with vanilla. The pods are ultimately hand measured, sorted and packed, and the bigger and fatter they are the higher the grade. You will see in the above picture that the vanilla pods at La Vanilleraie (the co-op we visited) are even hand stamped with the name of the farmer.
10 facts about vanilla that you may not have known:
- The name Bourbon vanilla originates from Reunion Island, which was originally named Île Bourbon.
- Vanilla is part of the orchid family, and is the only orchid with edible fruit.
- A vanilla pod forms after a vanilla flower is pollinated within 12 hours of opening, and it is due to the necessity for accuracy that flowers are hand pollinated. Bees could do the job (if they were around) but their hit rate is much lower at around 10%.
- After the flower is pollinated it closes and starts forming into a bean pod which takes around 6 months to reach the degree of ripeness to harvest.
- Vanilla pods need to be harvested at their peak, any time longer they start to split and the quality is compromised.
- Once harvested they are dipped in water that has been heated to 65C for 3 minutes and then rapidly drained. They are then wrapped in padded blankets allowing them to sweat. It’s during this stage that they take on their brown colour.
- Vanilla is then dried. Firstly in the sun for about 10 days and then in the shade for 2 – 3 months.
- Dried vanilla pods are then packed away in maturation trunks for 12 months where their complex aroma (made up of over 180 molecules) is developed.
- There are over 110 species of vanilla and only 15 of them contain flavour inside the beans. Only 3 of those are good enough to use in the vanilla industry.
- It takes roughly 2 years from harvest to the point where vanilla is sold on Reunion Island, making it one of the top quality producers in the world.
* The following food pics are taken by myself and all come from my book Sweet – Published by Penguin Random House
Vanilla flavour partners
If you are wondering what the best partners are for vanilla take a look at these ideas (* Source The Flavour Bible – Karen Page & Andrew Dorenburg). There are a few obvious and a few less obvious.
What is the most unusual food you have tasted with vanilla?
Baked goods – cakes and cookies
Allspice, almonds, apples, apricots
bay leaf, beef, berries, brown butter, butterscotch
caramel, ricotta cheese. chicken, chiles, chocolate. cilantro, cinnamon, cloves
cream and ice cream
cream cheese, custards, eggs, figs fish
Ginger, honey, lemon juice, lobster, Mascaropone, melon
Mint mussels, nutmeg, nuts, orange, peaches, pears, plus, rosemary, saffron, scallops, strawberries
Tamarind, tea, root vegetables, balsamic vinegar, whiskey, yoghurt.
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