This week, we are revisiting our recipe for vanilla extract, and the warm, spirited feeling that it evokes seems just right for this window between storms. Cold air and full creeks, a bustle of baking and preparation for the week ahead. Even thought this recipe likes to infuse for a few weeks to reach full strength, it makes a lovely last-minute gift idea, in a handsome bottle with the bean still inside it, and a note indicating when it will be ready. Vanilla has come a long way from its place of origin, and found its way into so many desserts, that it is a kind of ubiquitous, almost universal backbone of pastries and candies. But its omnipresence belies a complicated backstory, of trade and scarcity, conquest and appropriation, storms and markets and artificial imposters.
Vanilla, as we discuss briefly in the recipe above, is strangely associated with "plainness" or "ordinariness". Perhaps because it is the white flavor of ice cream? Both vanilla and cacao, the twin poles of dessert flavor, were originally wild-crafted in the jungles of Mesoamerica, by Mayan, Totonac, and Aztec peoples. The sprawling vines of the vanilla orchid can still be found in the remanent rainforests there. The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs brought the flavors of chocolate and vanilla to Europe in 1519 but the vanilla orchid, despite flowering in English and French greenhouses, did not bear fruit for many years. Vanilla defied attempts at commercial bean cultivation for centuries before an enslaved boy named Edmund Albius developed a method of manually pollinating the ephemeral flowers in 1841. The process is painstaking; each cream-colored flower blooms for just one morning a year, and after pollination, each flower requires a full 9 months to mature into an individual vanilla bean. The vanilla orchid will thrive only under very specific conditions, climates and locations, and even then, it is not easy to grow, being highly susceptible to environmental damage from storms and hurricanes, whose intensity is only increasing as the planet warms. After pollination, the vanilla beans are blanched, dried, and cured, a process which adds months to the export timeline. Because of all these constraints, vanilla is a costly spice, second only to saffron in price per pound. The cultivation and sale of vanilla beans is still often performed by small scale farmers, who then sell their dried beans to aggregators who sort and grade them, to be sold and processed further into extracts and pastes.
There are several different varieties of vanilla bean, and each of them reflect both the genetics of the plant and the terroir of the area it is grown in. Bourbon Vanilla, named for the area where hand pollination was developed, is known for having a sweet rum (not whiskey!) flavor. Tahitian vanilla has a more floral quality, Mexican vanilla has spicy and woody notes, and Indonesian vanilla often has a kind of smoky profile due to their wood-fired drying process.
Artificial vanilla flavor is often used in commercially prepared products, in lieu of the more expensive true vanilla extract. Although it lacks the subtle notes of true vanilla, these compounds are often destroyed during cooking or processing anyway, so the casual consumer is unlikely to notice the difference. Artificial vanilla flavoring is often created with a petrochemical base. While the compound being created, vanillin, is chemically identical to a compound found in true vanilla beans, the manufacturing process for artificial vanilla leaves much to be desired, generating large quantities of wastewater that must be treated extensively before it can be released into the water system.
When you are choosing beans for this project, you will want to inspect the beans for optimum quality. Generally, beans are sold in specialty markets in a glass or other airtight container, so it may be difficult to do this. Bigger isn't necessarily better; when it comes to vanilla beans; a well-cured bean should not be abnormally large. Because they shrink substantially in the curing process, a larger than average bean may indicate an incomplete cure. A quality bean should be supple enough to tie around your finger without breaking; while you may not be able to test this in the grocery store, you can shake the jar, and listen to the sound it makes; even a faint rattle can indicate a stale bean. A good vanilla bean should be soft and pliant.
Beneath every ordinary thing lies a story. Beneath everything we take for granted, an infinitely long chain of events precedes and informs it. Spices, particularly, are a fascinating lens through which to view our human history, tapping into tales of trade and economics, travel and agriculture and trial and error. Even (especially!) vanilla, whose long arial roots twine far back in history, spanning centuries and continents. We live always with a part of us rooted in the past. Whether or not we realize it, the past is still very much alive and influencing us. In our food and our preconceived notions, in our habits and our holidays and our dinners and desserts. We are all held here by this shared evolution, as strongly as if history were gravity. Is this ordinary? Or is it a blooming miracle? Breathe in the smell of a well-cured vanilla bean, and the answer will be revealed.
By Jessica Tunis