Great scents from little pods

Michael Bateman travels to Kensington and the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, to discover the secrets of the fragrant orchid that gives us vanilla; PART 1: THE MOST EXPENSIVE SPICES IN THE WORLD
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Little Pods

The Use of the vanilla pod in cooking is peculiar to the French. And peculiarly English is the use of synthetic vanilla flavouring.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. But is a pounds 1 a pod expensive? It's no longer the rarity it was and you can even buy the pods in Sainsbury's. Which begs the question, is it good value to pay 50p to pounds l for a wee bottle, containing around 38ml, for something which has never been near a vanilla pod, a substance which has in fact been obtained from wood pulp or petrochemicals?

The French are fussier about their vanilla than we are, pioneering a series of great dishes, creme brulees, creme anglaises and egg-thickened ice-creams enriched with the perfume of real vanilla. Yet in Britain a large part of the food business is dependent on sythesised vanillin to make cakes, biscuits, confectionery, yoghurts, ice-cream. Vanilla flavour comprises 70 per cent of the ice-cream market, most of it made with artificial vanillin.

What do you use at home? Does the label say VANILLA in large letters and in smaller letters, Flavouring? Well, flavouring is a weasel word. It means that if you wanted extract of vanilla bean, you've been had. This is synthesised vanillin.

I stumbled on the wonderful world of vanilla quite by chance while on a family holiday last Christmas in La Reunion.

This large volcanic island in the Indian Ocean is the largest departement of France outside the mainland. It has few exports, some cane sugar, lovely jams (pineapple, gouavier), excellent turmeric (curcuma) and superb vanilla pods. It was in the island's Maison de Vanille in Sainte-Suzanne that I began to unravel the stirring tale of its history. There is a very good reason why vanilla should be a uniquely French flavour.

France lagged behind while imperial Portugal, Britain and Holland opened up sea routes to compete for the spice trade (to break the monopoly of the Venetians). By the 18th century, they virtually controlled the price of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, mace. France was right out of it.

Vanilla was not one of the spices sought. Yet vanilla flourishes primarily in French dependencies, either past or present. Mada-gascar, under French administration until 10 years ago, commands 70 per cent of world trade. Other sources are, Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, Tahiti and Moorea in the Pacific, and in the Indian Ocean the Seychelles, Mauritius and, of course, La Reunion.

Vanilla originates in Mexico, the only one of the 17,000-strong family of orchids noted for producing an exotic perfume (Vanilla fragrans). It was prized by the Aztecs who recovered the moist, damp, ripened pods from the forest floor, and intoxicated by its compelling odour used it (often with chillies) as a flavouring for their prized drink of pounded cocoa beans, liquid chocolate.

Hernando Cortes, the 16th-century conquistador, seeking gold in Mexico, had already discovered chocolate, xocoatl, as the Aztecs called it. One can imagine the Spaniards' curiosity as they sniffed their first vanilla bean. "What is the name of this little pod?" they would have asked. Como se llama esta vainilla (little pod)? And they would have been told "Tlilxochitl". Not a lot of people (notilotlpepl) can get their tongue round tlilxochitl, I guess, so the name vanilla stuck.

The bean was a mighty success in Spain, a natural partner to chocolate, they agreed. But attempts to cultivate it in other climes foundered, for they couldn't grasp the means of pollination. This was eventually sussed in 1836 by a Belgian botanist, Charles Morren, who found this was achieved by one species of bee and one of hummingbird.

About this time a plantation owner in the French island of Bourbon (now La Reunion) was attempting to grow it. In 1841 one of his African slaves, Edmond Albius, who had a leaning towards botany, found that you could open up the flowers using a bamboo needle, and pinch the stamen and pistol, the male and female pollen organs, together.

The Maison de Vanille embraces a vanilla orchid orchard, and 75-year- old Louis Centron, a retired worker, showed me how it's done, the technique having changed not a jot since Edmond Albius invented it.

He explained that in the early days they grew the orchids in the middle of sugar cane fields, out of people's gaze. It was common to mark your initials on each bean so no one could steal them and sell them as their own.

Orchids need a climbing frame, and maize has been used as a host. Here at the Maison, vanilla is planted in sheltered groves. Host trees, chosen for pliability (against hurricanes), are pruned to 8ft to make a canopy of dappled shade, sparse enough to permit the necessary rain. The orchids are grown to a height of 3ft, tied, and allowed to fall back to the ground, making an overall length of 6ft.

They bloom only for a single day, a plain white flower, the most undistinguished of all orchid flowers. Each day women known as marieuses inspect them. They hand-pollinate some 1,000 blooms a day.

The pods at first grow quickly, resembling French beans. They remain on the plant for six to nine months, maturing, to be picked before they completely ripen. At this stage they have no smell or taste whatsoever, so it is surely a miracle that the plant's properties were ever discovered.

M Centron explains the complicated curing procedure, plunging the green beans into a bath of boiling water to arrest development; sweating them in wooden frames wrapped in cloth to activate the enzymes which create the aromas; drying them in ovens (at 65C) for three hours a day for several weeks; further ageing until a fine frosting of white crystals appears, a sure sign that the finest flavour has been achieved.

By now the pods can be sorted and sold. The best are about seven inches long, like leather bootlaces, pliable, the colour of deep-brown chocolate. The vanilla house and the sheds which house the ovens radiate the overpowering, dizzying smell of the bean. It's not surprising that one of the early claims made for it was that of aphrodisiac, not a sensation you would experience uncorking a bottle of the synthesised vanillin.

What is so special about vanilla? Much is known about the chemistry of smells, little about our reasons for liking and disliking them. John Margetts, technical director of the natural flavour house, Borthwicks, suggests it is rooted in our childhood experiences. "It is a trained response, learnt in infancy." Technically? "Vanilla has a certain ability to fill flavour gaps, the rough edges," he suggests. If you could imagine the aroma profile of a food as series of ragged peaks, think of vanilla as snow falling on it like a blanket.

Is it a scam to pass off vanillin as vanilla? I asked him. "If you want a product with complexity," he says, "You will want to buy vanilla extract. This is the whole pod, crushed, all its flavours extracted by solvent, preserved in alcohol, and aged."

The aroma profile of real vanilla consists of some 200 components (they have identified as many as 500 in blackcurrant). About a dozen of the chief components are combined to create a rounded vanilla essence.

There is no doubt in my mind it's worth buying the pod. Of those I brought back from La Reunion so very, very cheaply, some were very aromatic, some less so. The only guarantee of quality is to buy an accepted name, such as Bourbon. Madagascar and La Reunion both market theirs as Bourbon.

Since Madagascar, which produces the largest quantity in the world, became independent from France quality has varied. "There isn't the same control," says John Margetts. "When the French were in charge they used to burn a proportion of the crop. It was their way of eliminating beans of lesser quality, and incidentally keeping up prices."

The leading importer of beans to the UK, Bespoke Foods, buys from Madagascar and supplies it under the name Dammann to Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Harvey Nichols. "The best vanilla is said to come from Mexico," says its director, Stuart Ninian, "but we never see it."

Over to Vong, the fashionable Kensington restaurant (chosen by former Good Food Guide editor Drew Smith as his restaurant of the year. He singled out the desserts for special praise). It has an odd pedigree. The owner is Jean-Georges Vongerichten from Alsace, who first opened in New York, cooking in a Thai-style. Vanilla isn't part of Thai culture, but it's prominent on the Vong menu in fish courses (in a lobster sauce), as well as in desserts.

Vong's London chef, New Yorker Daniel del Vecchio, keeps a bundle of a dozen moist pods closely wrapped in cling film, stored in a cool metal cabinet.

Tasted as it is, he says, vanilla gives no clue to its richness. The uncooked pod is a little bitter, smoky, with a hint of tobacco. But once it is heated in a bath of milk or cream, it begins to expand and work its magic.

When be uses one, he splits the pod and scrapes out the thousands of tiny seeds and their pulp (which contain the largest concentration of flavour) and stirs them into a milk or cream mixture as he heats it, along with the rest of the pod. The pod is reusable. He either wipes it and puts it an airtight container, of more usefully, buries it in a jar of sugar, where it also serves to make scented vanilla sugar to use in desserts.

Rather than use essence or extract (he wouldn't dream of using "flavouring"), he makes his own, using a spirit without taste, such as vodka or white rum. He chops up pods to steep in it for at least a week (proportion of spirit to chopped vanilla: l0 to one). It tastes fierce, but when used the spirit cooks off, leaving the aroma. You can leave the pods to macerate indefinitely.

! For stockists of Bespoke Foods call 0171 737 3777

CARDOMON

The world's most expensive spice is cardomom. This may come as a surprise to Britons, many of whom are not even aware of its existence (although they experience its medicinal flavours in cough sweets).

It is a difficult flavour to pin down. It has a certain bite on the tongue (like peppermint, though the flavour is more like lemon peel). It has a stimulating, warming effect, and is used in the Middle East and India as a breath freshener.

The green pods (white ones are green cardomoms bleached in sulphur dioxide) are a key element in Indian cooking. The crunchy seeds, ground up, are essential in garam masala, the bouquet of warm spices used in north Indian cooking (blended with ground, cloves, cinnamon, mace, cumin, coriander and black peppercorns).

It grows in the rain forests of Kerala in south India several thousand feet up. And although it is one of the oldest spices known to man, its use in the West is only moderate. In Germany it is added to some of their more pungent wurst (slicing sausage) and to rollmop herring marinades. The Swedish use it as a flavouring for buns, cakes and milk puddings (just as we sometimes use caraway seed, another spice with a prickly bite). They also use it to spice mulled wine and add extra punch to a punch.

In the Middle East it is popular in strong black coffee, a single crushed grain adding mysterious interest. One of its few inroads into the UK (outside curry) is its appearance in Indian restaurants as the ice cream, kulfi, offsetting the richness of the condensed milk.

If you happen to see black cardomom, the grains of which are slightly larger, don't buy it for cooking. It has the breath-taking, dismaying pungency of camphor.

SEA BASS WITH VANILLA BUTTER VINAIGRETTE

Serves 4

100g/4oz unsalted butter

4 sea bass fillets, weighing about 100g/4oz each, skinned

12 vanilla pod

50ml/2fl oz Noilly Prat

2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

1 shallot, peeled and halved

150ml/5fl oz fish stock

25g/1oz peeled, seeded and diced tomato

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chervil

salt

freshly ground black pepper

Clarify the butter by melting it gently in a small pan, then skimming off any froth and pouring off the clear liquid into another pan, leaving behind the butter solids which will have collected at the bottom.

Brush both sides of the sea-bass fillets with a little clarified butter and season with salt and pepper.

For the vinaigrette, split the vanilla pod lengthways, scrape out the seeds with a small teaspoon and then chop the pod very finely. Put the seeds and pod into a small pan with the Noilly Prat, vinegar and shallot, bring to the boil and boil for a few minutes until reduced to about one tablespoon. Add the fish stock and boil once more until reduced to about three tablespoons. Remove the shallot halves, then add the remaining clarified butter, plus the tomato, chervil, quarter-teaspoon of salt and six turns of the black-pepper mill. Keep just warm over a very low heat.

Heat a lightly oiled cast-iron ribbed pan until very hot. Cook the fish fillets, skin-side down, for one minute, pressing down on top of each fillet in turn with the back of a fish slice to help mark them with the lines from the griddle. Cook for 30 seconds on the other side.

To serve, put the fish fillets on four warmed plates and spoon the vinaigrette to the side.

From 'Fruits of the Sea', BBC pounds 17.99

GLACE A LA VANILLE

To make 1.5 litres/212 pints

2 vanilla pods

250g/9oz sugar

6 egg yolks

500ml/1 pint milk

600ml/just over 1 pint double cream

Open the vanilla pods and scrape out all the little seeds with the flat of a knife.

Mix the vanilla seeds on a board with one tablespoon of the sugar, making sure the seeds are well distributed so that later on they are not all found sticking together in little groups in the ice-cream. Crush them a little with the flat of a knife.

Mix the prepared sugar with the rest of the sugar in a bowl. Add the egg yolks and beat the mixture until it lightens in colour.

Pour the milk into a saucepan. Add the empty vanilla pods and bring to the boil.

Pour the boiling milk on to the egg-and-sugar mixture, whisking fast. Remove the vanilla pods.

Put the mixture into a saucepan and heat gently, stirring all the time, until it thickens just enough to coat a wooden spatula or spoon. (This is now technically a custard.)

Add the cream. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the custard to cool completely.

Pour the mixture into a sorbetiere and churn according to the manufacturer's instructions until the ice-cream is made.

From 'Cuisine Spontanee', Macmillan pounds 6.95

RICE PUDDING

Serves 8-10

500ml/18fl oz milk

500ml/18fl oz double cream

1 vanilla pod

180g/6oz round-grain pudding rice

12 egg yolks

180g/6oz castor sugar

In a large heavy-based saucepan, bring the milk and cream to scalding point. Meanwhile split the vanilla pod, scrape out the seeds and add these, along with the pod itself, to the saucepan.

Stir in the rice and bring to the boil. Lower to a slow simmer and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is soft and the mixture reduced and thickened.

In a large bowl beat the yolks with the sugar until the mixture is pale and smooth. When the rice mixture is ready, beat it gradually into the egg mixture.

Return the mixture to the pan and very gently reheat until it thickens again, stirring occasionally. Cool, stirring once or twice to stop a skin forming, then chill over a bowl of iced water until set.

To serve as an accompaniment, shape into quenelles (sausage shapes) using two dessertspoons. Alternatively, press into small moulds using round cutters placed on dessert plates.

From 'Passion for Flavour', Conran pounds 25

FRESH SALAD IN VANILLA SYRUP

Vanilla is a magic ingredient in a spicy syrup for a delicious fruit salad. Combine tropical fruit with, say cubes of melon, apple, pear, seedless grapes and also skinned segments of orange, grapefruit and even lemon. The fruit salad, once combined with the syrup, needs to be chilled for a minimum of two hours (bananas, if used, should be added just before serving, to avoid discolouring).

Serves 4 to 6

1 vanilla pod

2.2cm/1 inch peeled green ginger

6 coriander seeds

1 clove

pinch of star anise

zest of lime, orange and lemon

100g/312oz sugar

1 pint water

Split the pod, scraping out the pith and seeds. Or re-use a pod which you may have stored in sugar. Dissolve sugar in the water, add the spices and bring to the boil. Turn off the heat and leave to stand. When cool, strain the syrup over the fruit salad and chill. (What you don't use, reserve in a jar in the fridge.)

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