Plain Vanilla?

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Does the notion that vanilla – or plain vanilla – used as an adjective, can mean the simplest, least exotic, and nothing special, resonate with you?

If so, change your vanilla.

Like so many wonderful things to eat and drink (beans, chiles, squash, corn, chocolate, coffee…) vanilla was first cultivated by the Pre-Columbian peoples of what is now Mexico. For a long time, that was the only place it was cultivated – the orchids (Vanilla planifolia) that produced the pods could be transplanted to other suitable growing areas, but the small local melipona bee that pollinated it could not.

Mexico’s 300 year monopoly on vanilla production ended only when Edmond Albius, a12-year-old slave on Réunion, an Indian Ocean island then called Bourbon, invented a clever way to quickly hand pollinate the flowers.

Vanilla cultivation is elaborate and labour-intensive, which results in it being more expensive than all other spices but saffron. The flowers bloom for only a day, and if not pollinated, wither and die. If pollinated, the blossoms will develop into pods. The individual pods must be hand picked, over a period of weeks, at just the right moment, as they first show the first sign of splitting, in about 6 months.

The pods then go through a four-stage curing process (killing, sweating, drying, conditioning), which takes up the better part of another year. The pods are then graded, and the best ones – like ours – are long, plump, oily, dark brown/black, and incredibly fragrant.

Because we buy our Certified Organic, Free Trade vanilla directly from the farmer in Uganda, with whom we have had a relationship with for decades, we are able to sell it at a much lower price than vanilla of this quality can be purchased elsewhere.



It’s actually pretty easy to use whole vanilla beans: just slit them open lengthwise with a sharp knife and scrape out the pulp – and you can mince the pod and use that too. But we also have an even simpler option – the same high-quality pods in pure dark brown powder form.

Not sold yet about the benefits of real, pure, plain vanilla? Vanilla extract is (not surprisingly) made from low-grade pods, and even if labeled as pure, is sometimes adulterated with artificial flavour and/or tonka bean extract (a banned carcinogen). Artificial vanilla is made from the wood pulp treated with sulfites and sulfates, and, less commonly, from castoreum – the exudate from the scent glands of beavers – really!

In desserts, it’s the default flavour, but Vanilla is also a wonderful ingredient in savoury dishes. It is lovely in creamed spinach (minced shallots, butter, white wine, cream, spinach, finely diced fresh water chestnuts) where it’s voluptuous sweetness plays well against the flinty taste of the spinach. Also try it with lobster and other shellfish, poultry and in creamy sauces.