The sun-dried seed pod of a type of climbing orchid, vanilla has an
inimitable soft, sweet fragrance and flavour. The labour-intensive
process involved in hand-pollinating and nurturing the flowers, together
with the long drying time necessary makes it a highly prized - and
highly priced - ingredient.
The rich, sweet Bourbon-Madagascar
vanilla, from Madagascar, accounts for 75 per cent of the vanilla on
the market. Vanilla from Tahiti and Mexico makes up the remainder, but
is much harder to get hold of. Long, black, thin and wrinkled, vanilla
pods contain thousands of tiny black seeds, which are used to flavour
mainly sweet dishes, and go particularly well with chocolate. The presence of tiny black specks in a vanilla-flavoured dish is confirmation that real vanilla has been used.
Choose the best
Look for fragrant, very dark brown, almost black pods that
are slightly wrinkled, but still supple, with a slightly oily, shiny
surface. Length is an indication of quality - 15-20 centimetres is best.
Slit the pod open along its length, then scrape out the
small, sticky seeds using the tip of a small, sharp knife.
In an airtight container in a cool, dark place - it should keep for up to two years.
Add the seeds directly to dishes to flavour them, or add
pods to boiling milk to infuse it with a vanilla flavour, then use to
make milk-based puddings. Allow the pod to dry out for a couple
of days, then add it to a jar of sugar. After a week or so, the
flavoured sugar can be used for baking.