Second only to saffron as the most expensive spice, vanilla is one of the most popular flavourings on the planet. It is also used in the cosmetics and aromatherapy industries, as well as catering. Do note that the food industry all uses vanillin, which can be synthesised to give a vanilla flavour in foodstuffs.
What we call vanilla, is the seed pod of a climbing orchid of the genus Vanilla originally grown in Mexico. It is an expensive product due to it labour intense production i.e. it has to be pollenated individually by hand and has a lengthy and complex process for curing to achieve the best balance of sugar and aromatics. This processing changes the green pod into the dark brown, wrinkly pod we purchase.
The pods contain the vanilla seeds and the presence of these tiny black specks in a dish, such as custard or ice-cream, confirms real vanilla has been used, giving off it’s distinct rich, sweet aroma and flavour.
Mexico held the monopoly on vanilla for centuries, but now three quarters of world production is from the islands of Madagascar, Comoros and Reunion (formerly Ile Bourbon – hence the name Bourbon vanilla, or Bourbon-Madagascar), in the Indian Ocean, with the remainder now coming from Mexico and Tahiti.
Vanilla is used to flavour many things, mostly at the sweet end of the flavour range including ice-cream(obviously), butterscotch, custard based desserts such as creme brûlée, custard tart and bread and butter pudding, and baked products such as shortbread, macaroons and cheesecake – the list is practically endless.