Known as the second most expensive spice after Saffron due to its growing and labour intensive harvesting, Vanilla is often found in your kitchen cupboard as an extract or essence and is also sold as pods (known as beans), bean paste, powder and as a sugar.

A complex yet simple fragrant spice, it is described as having a sweet, rich, and warm woody flavour. It’s popular in perfume, aromatherapy, candles, in drinks and for baking delicious pastries, cakes, custard, ice cream and other deserts. Although expensive, vanilla beans can make a dish pop out and are perfectly complemented with chocolate, coffee, custard and caramel!

What is Vanilla?

A spice that comes from a tropical climbing orchid that if left alone will grows as high as it can with support, the flowers last a single day and are naturally pollinated by certain tiny bees. There are over 100 vanilla orchid species, but only one the V. Planifolia produces the vanilla bean.

Legend has it in Totonac mythology that the vanilla orchid grew when Princess Xanat fled to the forest with her lover who her father forbid her to marry. On being captured they were beheaded and on their blood hitting the ground, the orchid grew!

The word ‘Vanilla’ comes from the Spanish word ‘Vainilla’ which means ‘little pod’. There are several varieties of vanilla bean, Bourbon Vanilla, Tahitian Vanilla and Mexican vanilla which is one of the rarest and most sought after.

The pods contain thousands of small black seeds that create the flavour and colour when baking, these are picked when they are unripe and are put into hot water then left to dry for 2-6 months.

The origins of Vanilla

The oldest reports of Vanilla are from pre-Columbian Maya where they combined vanilla into a drink with spices and cacao. The earliest cultivators of vanilla where the Totonac people in Veracruz in Mexico in the 15th century, the Aztecs conquered the Totonacan empire and then added it to drinks for nobility called ‘chocolatl’. It was introduced into Europe in the 1520s by the Spanish where it was grown in botanical gardens in England and France with no joy of seeds! Up to the middle of the 19th century Mexico was the main producer until 1841 when Edmond Albius an enslaved boy on the Réunion Island worked out how to pollinate the flowers by hand and the orchids were sent to Madagascar, Seychelles and the Comoros Islands

Mainly grown in Madagascar, Vanilla is also found in Mexico, Central America, Tahiti, Reunion, Indonesia, Mauritius and Uganda

How is Vanilla used in cooking?

Added to dishes to give depth or creamy puddings and to make puddings, cakes and frosting stand out. It’s used in ice cream, rice pudding, cakes, cheesecake, custard and as a coffee syrup. After using the pods, you can dry these out and add them to salt or sugar for baking or to a pot of poached fruit or simmer it with water and sugar to make a vanilla flavoured syrup.

Store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place. Once you’ve opened a vanilla pod, wrap it in the unused plastic or in bees wax wrap to preserve it.

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