— By Assia Mortensen
Known as a synonym for “plain,” the roots of vanilla are far from ordinary. Derived from the pods of a hermaphroditic orchid producing long, sinuous pods, vanilla is carefully extracted in a complex process of harvesting, sweating and drying that can take months to complete. The scent of vanilla is said to be earthy, sensual, sweet and evocative of childhood.
One of the most popular ingredients in ice cream, cakes and other treats; vanilla can also be found in tea as well as many sodas…and who can resist a foamy vanilla latte? But the bean is equally big in the perfume and beauty industry, and historically touted for its health-promoting properties. Vanilla — the rare, real stuff — is certainly one versatile bean.
“When I got a moist, supple vanilla bean the first time, I was hooked,” said Stephen Block, a chef, and author of the book Vanilla Enchantment, Using the Magic of Vanilla Beans in Romantic Recipes. He loves vanilla in desserts like strawberry shortcake, or as a complement to recipes made with pineapple. “Creme Brule, pudding or any kind of cream filling is turned to magic when you use fresh vanilla in it,” he enthused. “Vanilla extract is good but if you scrape the seeds from a vanilla pod into the pudding it is even better.
Block cooks with vanilla in more unusual ways as well. “Vanilla is not just for desserts,” he said. Try “pork tenderloin or chicken breast sautéed in butter, with fresh apples or pineapple, add brown sugar and vanilla extract, or throw in a piece of a vanilla pod.”
Through there are more than 150 varieties, the three main kinds of vanilla beans are Bourbon vanilla, also known as Madagascar vanilla, which hail from the Indian Ocean Islands such as Madagascar (the largest producer of the pods). There’s the popular Mexican vanilla, which can be found in many Mexican markets, mostly sold as a strong extract; and finally, Tahitian vanilla, which has shorter, thinner beans, a more floral scent, and comes from French Polynesia.
The Aztecs first cultivated vanilla, which they nicknamed tlilxochitl — or ‘black flower.’ The Spanish encountered vanilla through meeting the Aztecs, and impressed with its flavor, brought it back to Europe, where it became a popular drink in combination with chocolate.
Long known as an attractive scent, one recent study on vanilla also touted its calming affects.1 A study at Tubingen University in Germany showed that vanilla fragrance reduced the startle-reflex in both humans and animals. The results indicate that the benefits of vanilla may be due to an essential property of the fragrance rather than just the ‘positive childhood associations,’ the study noted.
In addition, The Sloan Kettering Cancer Center experimented with aromatherapy on patients undergoing Magnetic Resonance Imaging (an MRI). Patients, who complained of claustrophobia in the magnetic tunnel, generally speaking, felt significantly less anxiety and discomfort when the aroma of vanilla was introduced.
Extracting the Bean:
According to Stephen Block, here’s a straight-forward way to make your own vanilla extract:
1 cup vodka, brandy, or rum in a glass jar
3 high quality vanilla beans
1. Split the beans the long ways with a scissors or knife and cut in half.
2. Add to glass jar, put a lid on and let sit for 4-6 weeks.
3. Pour off the extract into 2 oz. bottles, label and decorate for a nice gift.
1Fox, K. The Smell Report: Vanilla. The Social Research Centre. Available at: http://www.sirc.org/
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