The way we see flavour is at times a funny thing. The perfect example of this is vanilla. Vanilla is a flavour we use in just about everything from ice cream and drinks to cakes and cocktails
Interestingly though it is also seen in western culture as a dynamic for bland. it seems peculiar that “plain vanilla” is the going synonym for anything basic, bland, or blah.
A plain-vanilla wardrobe lacks pizzazz; plain-vanilla technologies lack bells and whistles; plain-vanilla automobiles miss the shiny hood ornaments, and plain-vanilla music is the sort of soulless drone that afflicts us in elevators. The truth is, though, that plain vanilla is anything but dull.
Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, a sprawling conglomeration of some 25,000 different species. Vanilla is a native of South and Central America and the Caribbean, and the first people to have cultivated it seem to have been the Totonacs of Mexico’s east coast.
The Aztecs acquired vanilla when they conquered the Totonacs in the 15th Century; the Spanish, in turn, got it when they conquered the Aztecs. One source claims that it was introduced to western Europe by Hernán Cortés-though at the time it was eclipsed by his other American imports, which included jaguars, opossums, an armadillo, and an entire team of ballplayers equipped with bouncing rubber balls.
Vanilla was thought of as nothing more than an additive for chocolate until the early 17th Century when Hugh Morgan-a creative apothecary in the employ of Queen Elizabeth I-invented chocolate-free, all-vanilla-flavoured sweetmeats.
By the next century, the French were using vanilla to flavour ice cream-a treat discovered by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, when he lived in Paris as American Minister to France. He was so thrilled with it that he copied down a recipe, now preserved in the Library of Congress.
It also has medicinal use as people take vanilla to treat intestinal gas and fever. Vanilla is also added to foods to reduce the amount of sugar needed for sweetening. It is also believed to increase sexual desire and act as an aphrodisiac (if you subscribe to those sort of claims).
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) because its production is so labour-intensive. Vanilla grows as a clinging vine, reaching lengths of up to 300 feet, from which sprout pale greenish-yellow flowers, about four inches in diameter.
These flowers are intended to be pollinated by Melipona bees and, occasionally, by hummingbirds. Each flower remains open for just 24 hours, after which, if not pollinated, it wilts, dies, and drops to the ground. Frankly, given its sexual proclivities and a narrow window of opportunity, the very existence of vanilla seems like an evolutionary long shot.
Vanilla is a stunningly complex and subtle spice, containing at a guess somewhere between 250 and 500 different flavour and fragrance components. The most prominent of these is vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) which-despite its ungainly chemical moniker-is relatively straightforward to synthesize.
Peculiarly, it can even be produced from castoreum, a molasses-like secretion from the anal glands of beavers, though this, admittedly, is a minor source.
There are of course different types of Vanilla. Whether you buy it ready-made or make it from scratch, it’s important to get a Vanilla that is used on real flavour rather than the cloyingly sweet versions that you sometimes see around.
If you are buying it, we recommend Crawley’s, which uses intense dark Vanilla bean hand-scraped perfectly suspended in the natural caramels of the sugar. It has a wonderful relationship with Mojitos and dark spirit-based drinks.
One of the virtues of Vanilla Syrup is that it can be added to almost any of the classic cocktails to add a different element to the taste.
Instead of just using Simple Syrup, Vanilla Syrups adds that little something extra in drinks like Vanilla daiquiris (which are pretty amazing), an Old Fashioned and even a Tom Collins or a Whiskey Sour is all very good with vanilla.