Bourbon Vanilla Beans

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South China Seas purchases organic bourbon vanilla pods directly from the farm in Uganda. This allows us to sell it at very good price (currently $7.00 for a package of 3″ long, grade A beans), but more importantly, it ensures that we carry the freshest and most fragrant vanilla you can buy.

African and Mexican vanilla is far more flavourful and sweet-smelling than Tahitian vanilla. Vanilla from Africa is called bourbon vanilla after Ile Bourbon (now Réunion) where a practical method of hand pollinating it was discovered in 1841. Prior to this, vanilla could only be commercially grown in Mexico thanks to a symbiotic relationship between the vanilla orchid and a local species of melipona bee that has thus far resisted all attempts at relocation.

The long process of producing vanilla is elaborate and labour intensive. Plants are propagated and pollinated by hand, and, after 10 months of ripening on the vine, are harvested, daily, again, by hand. At this point, the pods have no discernible fragrance.

Over the next several months, the harvested beans are first exposed to high heat to stop vegetative growth, then wrapped in woolen cloths and sweated in the sun for an hour each day, then slow dried by laying them out in the sun for a few hours each morning and then cured on racks in a shed for several more weeks. Finally, they are conditioned in sealed boxes for several months to further develop the fragrance.

It’s amazing that anyone figured all of this out in the first place.

Not surprisingly, vanilla is expensive – the second most expensive spice by weight after saffron. Prices fluctuate wildly; the wholesale price of grade A vanilla has been as low as $50.00/kilo and as much as $600.00/kilo in just the past decade.

What do you use it for? Ice cream of course, for which it is the default flavour, and all things dessert. But Vanilla is also a wonderful ingredient in savoury dishes. I love it 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, metallic taste of the spinach. Also try it with lobster and other shellfish, poultry and in creamy sauces.

To use vanilla, cut it open lengthwise and scrape out the pulp and seeds, which is where most of the flavour and fragrance resides. But don’t throw out the pod. Mince and add it to whatever you’re cooking, or if you don’t want little black bits, extract the flavour by simmering the pods in whatever liquid you are using. Or just add the pod to your sugar – which will soon become wonderfully aromatic vanilla sugar.