Originally discovered by the Totonacs of Mexico, vanilla has a history that’s as romantic as its homelands are exotic. Legend has it the plant from which it is cultivated first flowered on land where the blood of two ill-fated lovers was shed. When the Aztecs invaded, they claimed vanilla too, using it as a sweetener in their drinking chocolate – a tradition that reached Europe by way of the Spanish conquistadors. The drink was enjoyed exclusively by the noble classes until the mid-19th century when a group of French entrepreneurs transported the plant’s fruit from Mexico to Reunion, Mauritius, the Comoro Islands, Seychelles and Madagascar in the hope of establishing more plantations.
Today, three-quarters of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar and Reunion. The tropical vine on which vanilla grows can reach lengths of more than 100ft. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants, the orchid.
However, vanilla’s appeal is not in the glamour of its exotic flower – but in its fruit, once so prized it was worth its weight in silver. Vanilla farming is laborious; the flowers first need to be pollinated by hand, the fruit then harvested daily, also by hand, and carefully cured.
In spice terms, the final product is second only to saffron in value. In Madagascar men carrying the sticky pods to market have been killed for a few kilos of their crop. While in the USA and Europe, cured vanilla pods are sometimes so expensive that companies can’t afford to insure large volumes of the stock.
As an adjective, vanilla has come to mean bland. As a flavour, cloying chemical imitations so prevalent in commercial cakes have masked its true character. The real thing is anything but boring: subtly perfumed, delicate and rounded, its natural partners are most often sweet. A pod, split lengthways, will add intensity to most fruit – from roasted rhubarb to my own island favourite, grilled pineapple. But do not discount vanilla in savoury dishes.
Unsalted butter is the best carrier: mash the seeds into it first, then roll into a log and cool in the fridge. Melt a slab over the top of steamed white fish such as sea bass; it will bring out the sweetness of the flesh. Or sear duck breasts, set aside to rest and make a jus in the pan by adding red wine, a split pod, the zest of an orange and a spoon of honey, then reduce to half its volume. Beat in the vanilla butter until glossy and dribble over the duck. But as this month’s recipe attests, it most naturally belongs to puddings…