When I was a kid, vanilla-flavoured food seemed plain to me. Compared to the decadent reputation of chocolate, the typical products that vanilla was known for gave the impression of being white, boring, and devoid of specific flavour. For some reason, lack of colour translated into lack of flavour. Vanilla ice cream seemed more like a white canvas for adding colourful sprinkles and dripping sauces, but my childish mind failed to notice that the whiteness had a flavour all its own.
It wasn’t until later in life, when I became aware of little black specks in Breyer’s Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, that I realized vanilla was bursting with its own pleasant qualities. Just as chocolate is produced from cocoa beans, so too did those vanilla specks in ice cream come from beans. And not just any beans, but beans from the orchid family. My son actually surprised me at breakfast once when he pointed to the picture of an orchid on the side of a yoghurt container. “It’s vanilla,” he said. When I was four years old, a picture of a flower did not indicate vanilla; I would have said, “This yoghurt is flower flavour. What’s flower flavour?”
My adult eyes have been opened to the fact that vanilla is more of a fruit from a tropical flowering plant than I would have ever guessed. Vanilla beans originally were only grown from an orchid plant native to Mexico. It became popular as an exotic spice after the Spanish explorer Cortes returned from Mexico in the early 1500’s with vanilla as one of his prized treasures. Even now it is a more expensive spice than its widespread familiarity would have us believe, registering as the second most expensive after saffron.
Its artificial counterpart in the form of vanilla extract lessens the expense but does not have the pristine flavour of the real thing. In fact, one of the reasons I perceived vanilla as being bland as a child comes from an experience with a jar of vanilla extract in my mother’s cooking cupboard. The extract was dark and alluring, and smelled as if it would taste sweetly satisfying enough to change my opinion of boring, white vanilla. Not so. Upon taking a sip, I was shocked into realizing that vanilla extract does not taste like you think it should. I had a similar revelation with semi-sweet chocolate, which I also pilfered from my mother’s baking goods, thinking it was a chocolate bar. But these two items are anomalies and while a bottle of vanilla extract and a block of semi-sweet chocolate may be necessary as baking essentials, they can’t hold a candle to the real thing. After my incident with bottled extract, vanilla ice cream would remain a white canvas for toppings, and it took me some time to get over the fact that vanilla is not meant to get lost under a barrage of peanuts, caramel sauce, and cherries, but rather to enrich all flavours.
Another remarkable quality of vanilla is that it comes from the seeds from long black bean pods. Quite the opposite of the stark white I had always associated with vanilla. If the beans are black and the extract is a dark liquid, why is vanilla ice cream white? The small amount of extract from a bottle or seeds scraped from a pod compared to the other white ingredients like cream, flour, and sugar negates the darker colour of pure vanilla. Vanilla never overtakes a recipe in appearance, but even the slightest amount accentuates it in taste. For this reason, it has become a spice added for flavour intensification purposes in savoury dishes far beyond basic desserts, and deliciously paired with the likes of lobster, scallops, or salmon. Underlying that whiteness is a sweet and complex spice, even though children may be drawn to the rainbow of more colourful flavours.
DARIN COOK is a regular contributor to eatdrink who works and plays in Chatham-Kent, and keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.