Mexico-Vanilla - Food Gypsy

Vanilla of the Gods, Exploring Mexican Vanilla

Published On June 17, 2010 | By Gypsy | Central America, Gastronomy, On The Street, Travel

One experience leads to the next, the journey of taste, the sensation of pleasure, the seduction of – vanilla.  Food Gypsy dives deep into vanilla, traveling Mexico to find the perfect, sweet, bean.    

In a land of flavor, vanilla may be among Mexico’s greatest exports to the world.  Used in everything from perfume to ice cream to your favorite baked goods, no matter what the flavor; vanilla is the sweet, warm temptress of the orchid family.  Long, thin, black pods that hold both scent and flavor, in the tender seeds inside.

Long thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac, vanilla is an often underrated ingredient.  In most North American supermarkets you’ll find ‘pure vanilla extract’ in small bottles at high prices, they are inevitably next to large bottles of  ‘artificial vanilla extract’ for a quarter of the price.

Know your extracts… look for colour.

   Real vs. Fake… oh, I mean ‘artificial’

Artificial anything is a far cry from the real thing, but artificial vanilla extract is made from either the petrochemical guaiacol or from lignin, a natural constituent of wood and a byproduct of the paper industry.

Not in my kitchen.  Thank you.

Organic, 100% real vanilla is worth the extra expense, start with good ingredients, and end with good food.

Mexico was an education in vanilla.  I came here thinking it would be plentiful and potent, and while it certainly appeared to be everywhere, everything is not always what it appears to be.

Mexican vanilla sold in tourist markets is sometimes not actual vanilla extract, but rather vanilla extract mixed with an extract of the tonka bean which contains Coumadin. Tonka bean extract smells and tastes like vanilla, but Coumadin is banned by USA by the Food and Drug Administration and others.

Holding a clear bottle up to a strong light can tell you everything you need to know. If it is brown, muddy looking and cheap, it’s not pure vanilla.

    How to tell a good vanilla? 

First, real vanilla is brown.  If you’re buying anything (including powdered vanilla) that is white, it’s not real vanilla, its processed vanilla flavoring.  As for the extract, also, check its color.  Real vanilla extract should be a clear, rich, amber color.

If it appears cloudy or muddy, it’s likely not 100% vanilla.

One sure fire way to know if its real vanilla is the price.  Top quality, vanilla is always expensive.  There’s a reason it’s so pricey.  It is harvested, dried and selected by hand.

So far a good Mexican vanilla has evaded me, though I do have a lead that will take me to Veracruz and the fields of vanilla just south of the city.  Until then… going with a sure thing.  Vanilla beans.

Which I’ll take home and split open, exposing all that gooey sweetness in the centre.  Some will go in a glass jar with fine sugar – to stand a few weeks before vanilla sugar can be used to dust the top of fruit or being added to my favorite vanilla pound cake recipe, making it double vanilla pound cake.

Another two vanilla beans will be placed in a small glass bottle (brown glass is best, it keeps the light from affecting the color) and covered with about a half cup of bourbon/whisky for a little vanilla extract.

That is if I can wait the full six months for it to stand… in a cool, dark place.  Vanilla whiskey is mighty tempting and they sell top quality organic vanilla extract in bulk at the local health food store, my “everyday” vanilla.

Bourbon vanilla, more exactly… vanilla bean paste… still the queen of my pantry.

  Still Champion…

While that steeps I still have my standby (and obsession); Neilson & Massey, Madagascar Bourbon, PURE VANILLA BEAN PASTE.  It’s my current favorite baking ingredient. I love to bake and love it when I’m introduced to something that brings new inspiration to that passion.

Bourbon vanilla or Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla, produced from plants originally from the Americas.  Madagascar is the number one producer of vanilla in the world.

I’ve used some of the best vanillas on the market… but THIS… this takes the cake!  In fact I’ve built entire recipes around this ONE ingredient.  Just opening the jar is intoxicating.  It’s grainy and sweet and adds a warm color to everything it touches.

Seriously – love this stuff.    It’s not cheap, but you need so little it’s worth every penny.  Where to find it?   Try your favorite health food store or boutique cooking store.

Vanilla… sex?!

The term “vanilla” is often used as a synonym for “plain” or “average”.   I think they must not be shopping where I shop.  It is a rich, sexy, elegant flavor on its own that blends easily with others.  There’s nothing “vanilla” about vanilla.  Vanilla is  balance,  seduction and submission, sweetness and simplicity.

Viva la Vanilla!

Add a splash of sexy vanilla to anything with vanilla sugar.

It supports without overpowering.  It favors without imposing, it stands alone or in good company… vanilla… a gift from the Gods.

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About The Author

"Gypsy" is not my real name." A freelance food & travel writer & photographer based in Aylmer, Quebec. Corinna Horton trained at Le Cordon Bleu, spent five years as the owner of Nova Scotia's Dragonfly Inn, and is currently between big, shiny kitchens as she focuses on family and what's next in this delicious life.