The second most expensive spice in the world, complex in flavor and warm in scent, vanilla is good for you: so long as you keep it away from its usual playmate, sugar.
The most popular ice cream flavor in the world, vanilla is rich and heady. Used in thousands of recipes, it is this ubiquity, rather than its deep, complex taste, that gave rise to the overused term ‘a bit vanilla’, meaning something boring. When you taste real vanilla – not synthetic vanilla – it is anything but.
An association with cakes, sweets and drinks has given vanilla a bad rep, but this spice is actually quite good for us. It contains small traces of B-complex vitamins such as B6, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and pantothenic acid, all of which help with nervous system function, enzyme synthesis and regulation of the metabolism. It also has small amounts of the minerals zinc, iron, magnesium, potassium and iron.
From orchid to pod
Vanilla is a member of the orchid family and is native to South and Central America and the Caribbean. The cultivation of vanilla takes a huge amount of time, energy, expertise and dedication. Waxy vanilla flowers bloom just one morning each year. It is then that vanilla farmers take a pointed stick and push the male and female parts together to ensure pollination. The base of the flower then swells and matures into a long, green seedpod which turns yellow upon ripening and splits at the end. Harvested and blanched in hot water, the seedpods are then left to sweat for 36-48 hours before being slowly dried. The result is the dark brown, shrivelled, fragrant vanilla pod with which we’re familiar.
The first people to cultivate vanilla were the Totonacs of Mexico’s east coast, but they were forced to give up their sacred ambrosia to the conquering Aztecs. The Aztecs believed that vanilla had aphrodisiac properties and combined it with cacao in the ceremonial drink xocolatl (the original hot chocolate). Spanish colonialists brought vanilla to Europe in 1519, thus beginning an intercontinental love affair with the flavor.
But it was not until 1841, when 15-year-old enslaved Edmond Albius developed the hand-pollination method, that the growth of vanilla spread, particularly to Madagascar where 75% of the world’s vanilla is now cultivated.
While Thomas Jefferson was serving as American Minister to France in the 1780s, he became so enthralled with his first taste of vanilla ice cream that he copied down the recipe, which is now preserved in the Library of Congress. As delight in vanilla spread across the United States, it became a commonly-used ingredient in cookies, cakes, ice cream, soft drinks, perfume, and beauty products.
Our farmers in Madagascar – home of bourbon vanilla, with its rich, buttery notes – have a sixth sense of when their orchids will bloom and work hard to cultivate the best organic product, with intense flavour.
Mariegilia Razanfindrafara has been producing certified organic vanilla for 11 years, the last four of which he has spent cultivating his crop with his two brothers. He says: “Throughout the years I gained in experience and I can now avoid silly mistakes that cost a lot during the cultivation and curing process. The curing process is the most important step, a very good vanilla can be spoiled with the wrong curing method.”
How to use it
You’ll find vanilla in our limited edition pumpkins smoothie. Packed with fiber, enriched with plant-protein, and full of cozy spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, pumpkins makes the perfect soothing blend to add to your post-workout routine.
Got vanilla at home? Make your own vanilla-flavored plant milk by steeping a vanilla pod in it overnight, or scrape the seeds directly into your smoothie. You can use your vanilla plant milk to whip up an easy chocolate shake: just combine a frozen banana, a packet of golds, a spoonful of almond butter and your plant milk together, and blend until creamy.