Thriller in Vanilla

The world's second most expensive spice is not just for ice creams and puddings. Chefs are using it to give an exotic twist to meat and seafood, too. David Gerrie reports

As a confirmed vanilla addict, the offer was irresistible. In a Mexican village, shelves were lined with litre upon litre of pure vanilla extract, derived from orchids and surely the world's headiest spice, costing a fraction of the price you would pay here.

That was several years ago and there's still half of my litre bottle left. Back then, the thought of using the often literally intoxicating brew (many extracts are 35 per cent proof) in anything other than puds was as leftfield as the idea of adding salt to caramel – and look what happened there.

Well, the same has happened to vanilla. A few telly chefs crop up actually suggesting we can dribble a few drops of the world's second-most expensive spice into savoury dishes and before you can say "Delia effect" vanilla isn't just for ice cream and custard any more. Chefs are using it to give an exotic twist to lobster, sea bass, chicken and vegetable dishes.

Boosted by this, there has been an explosion in the variety of vanilla products available, extending the traditional pod/extract offerings to powder, paste, salt and even "caviar", all of which can be used in non-sweet dishes. Increased sales have followed, with Marks and Spencer reporting 5 per cent year-on-year growth in vanilla pod sales and a 7 per cent increase for vanilla extract.

One thing that hasn't followed is a drop in price, due to the fact vanilla bean farming, as with saffron (the most expensive spice), is incredibly labour-intensive, with the pods having to be pollinated by hand, as opposed to the birds and the bees doing their normal job.

Premium-grade Tahitian pods currently clock in at £300 per kilo, according to Harry Ral, managing director of internet supplier vanillamart.co.uk, who has seen his sales double every year since he started the business five years ago and he advises fans of vanilla to stock up now. "Because of poor crops through the world, experts are predicting price rises of up to 15 per cent by the end of the year."

Many experts concede that the finest products come from northern Madagascar, with the purest of those earning the nomenclature Bourbon, after the former name of Réunion, Île Bourbon. But some prefer the Tahitian variety, or there are the slightly more iffy varieties from Mexico and Papua New Guinea – dubious because, some say, these areas do not have high crop yields and unscrupulous producers have been to known to "cut" or, in the worst cases, completely replace the vanilla in their products with the similarly flavoured but much less subtle tonka bean.

Sakina Jodiyawalla, managing director of distributor vanillabazaar.com, grew up in Madagascar and only uses pods grown on farms she played in as a child. All her products are organic and alcohol-free and hers is the only company in the world selling vanilla bean caviar, which is purely the seeds.

"The traditional method of extraction for vanilla is to take alcohol and steep vanilla pods in it for about two months, resulting in the familiar brown colour. We extract ours using CO2, which is bubbled up through the pod, giving a clear liquid, to which we then adds seeds."

Her syrupy extract with seeds is pricey at £11.29 for 50ml, but contains 0.4g of vanilla per litre – twice the standard ratio – and makes a stunning panna cotta.

Chief among new alternatives is vanilla bean paste, a favourite of Jonathan Moore, Waitrose's executive development chef.

"It's delicious served with cooked lobster. You make a traditional beurre blanc with white wine, vermouth, white wine vinegar and butter. Then, instead of finishing with fresh herbs, you whisk in a little vanilla bean paste. The fragrant vanilla doesn't overpower the lobster."

"Sophie Grigson uses Steenberg's pungent paste to make vanilla chicken with peppers and white wine, marinating the chicken pieces in thyme, lemon and vanilla paste before roasting with red peppers and white wine," says company co-founder Axel Steenberg. Tim Payne, head chef of Paradise by Way of Kensal Green, uses vanilla in roast Goosnargh duck with duck and fig samosa, port and vanilla sauce and pan-fried fillet of wild sea bass with vanilla cream.

At Stratford-upon-Avon's Fox's Spices, managing director Andrew Pester says: "We've stocked an Indian Bourbon-quality vanilla paste for five years, seeing a 25 per cent sales increase every year. I often use it as an expensive pouring sauce over puddings, but I also add a bit, together with a spot of carob powder, to chilli con carne."

Sam Rosen Nash, grocery buyer for Fortnum and Mason, says: "We've seen an increase in customers buying vanilla products to use in savoury recipes by adding them to egg, fish and chicken dishes. It creates an umami flavour, particularly when used with tarragon in a cream sauce, giving those wonderful vanilla notes you detect in viognier and chardonnay wines."

The new varieties of vanilla products now on sale offer cooks more flexibility. Tom Cook, executive head chef of London's Pont de la Tour, says: "Until three years ago, most vanilla products contained far too much alcohol and sugar, so all you got was black seeds to give you the right look, but none of the taste. I cook turbot with a chicken jus with vanilla running through it. I also add vanilla to butternut squash or pumpkin purée to serve with sea bass."

Claude Bosi, chef-proprietor of the capital's two-starred Hibiscus, adds vanilla to Jerusalem artichoke purée to serve with a sweetcorn fricasee and roasted John Dory.

Or, says Rob Andrew, head chef of the Riverford Field Kitchen: "Don't spend a fortune on tiny bottles of natural vanilla essence. Make your own instead. We put 10 to 15 pods into a bottle of rum and let them steep." And Rob surely has the most bizarre use for vanilla pods ever devised: "I tuck them into the air-conditioning vents in my car. In winter it gives a great vanilla smell when the heaters are on."

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