Ice cream - "do you want raspberry ripple, chocolate chip, or just vanilla?" we ask. And so many dessert recipes have that '1 tsp vanilla extract' at the end of the ingredients list. And I admit, I often omit it, or substitute almond extract, if I cannot find the little bottle.
But real vanilla - the proper extract, or the pod - not the synthetic 'essence' - is truly lovely. As the BBC Good Food page tells us
"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."According to the Guardian, a couple of months ago, vanilla prices are set to rise dramatically, owing to a bad harvest in Madasgascar, which produces 75% of the world's crop. Vanilla is the 2nd most expensive spice in the world [after saffron] The flowers need to be hand pollinated, so that makes it a costly business to produce.
Having started thinking about vanilla, I remembered telling the children in Ratby school "The Legend of the Vanilla" once. I think they had been baking the day before and had asked questions about vanilla- so this was a good way to end the afternoon. You do have to be careful about this though - there are many versions of the story. Some have a lot of gratuitous sex and gruesome violence, and Temple of Doom ritual sacrifice stuff, but the basic ingredients remain the same. I used the Stories from the Americas version [a useful resource for teachers] and just slightly bowdlerized it.
The legend tells of a beautiful young girl, Xanath who is on her way to offer a sacrifice to the gods when she hears lovely music coming through a doorway. She peered through the door and saw a young man, whistling to himself. It was a handsome, strong young fellow called Tzarahuin. Xanath loved music, and soon they were exchanging tunes and laughter. They fell in love - their love grew and matured. But Xanath was a noblewoman, and Tzarahuin was not. He was not a warrior, nor prince, nor priest nor wealthy merchant; he was an only an artist. But, what an artist! He played music and was also a painter...and as you would expect, their love was forbidden [and the jealous Fat God Of Happiness also fancied her!], they both ended up dead, and where their bodies fell, a beautifully fragranced vanilla plant grew. So there you are!
The name vanilla means little sheath- but in Mexico the plant is still called caxixanath [or hidden flower] after the dead girl.
Now I know the legend is all just made up - but this is a gorgeous plant with an interesting story to it. Vanilla makes a long journey to become the flavour of our ice cream or the fragrance of hair conditioner. Maybe saying "Just vanilla" doesn't do it justice!