Thursday, May 26, 2005


Mexican Vanilla

The Mexico of my mind is the Mexico of Hemingway and John Houston, of Cuco Sanchez and Katy Jurado. Hot and vibrant, sizzling and alive, yet at the same time, relaxed, tranquil and just a little bit sleepy. I love the romantic idea I have swirling in my mind, no matter how outdated (in some places) it may be. Sure, I know the Mexico of today is hardly that of the 1930’s but I’m certain there are places where that time can still be felt and one way to bring me to that mythical place is the scent of pure, unadulterated Mexican vanilla beans. Something so blissful and lovely it makes the past seem like the present and the future like a golden dream.

The vanilla orchid (the only of thousands of orchids that produces anything edible) plant is actually native to Mexico (yet another of the incredible new world additions to the culinary scene) was originally cultivated by the ancient Totonaca people but in the last hundred or so years has taken quite a fall in production, as the lands where they grow have been cleared for oil drilling. While Tahiti and Bourbon-Madagascar have dominated the market for the worlds most popular flavoring, Mexico has languished. Which is an absolute crime, since the authentic thing, thick, dark, pliable Mexican Vanilla Bean Pods, are the best there are, with the richest, roundest flavor that will cause your head to swim.

The second reason for the downfall of Mexican vanilla is the unfortunate practice of some (ok, most) manufacturers (and here I will start talking about vanilla extract, versus beans) of adding coumarin, which is banned by the US for being toxic (it causes liver damage) to cut costs. Coumarin is a natural extract from the tonka bean and smells and tastes very similar to real vanilla. Because the vanilla flower only opens one day, and has to either be pollinated by hand or by hummingbirds and a type of bee that only exisit in the Americas, the labor involved in the growing of this precious commodity is extremely intense. Which is why, if you can find the pods, get those, otherwise, it is just not worth the risk, and the inferior taste.

Having tried this type of vanilla, I can definitely detect a difference in taste, it being a touch acidic and remarkably less tasty and balanced. You can also tell the fake stuff just looking at it and seeing how thick and murky it was in comparison to the bright amber liquid of pure extract.
To be able to use real Mexican vanilla pods is an absolute revelation to the senses. It is so fragrant and lovely, it will permeate your dreams. You really must try it and see for yourself. It will far surpass the taste of that of the $16 bottle you bought at Williams Sonoma. I promise.

To make your own Vanilla Extract:

Place 1 split (cut lengthwise) Mexican Vanilla beans in a cup of best quality vodka (don’t cheap here.) and let stand, (in a cool, dark place) for up to six months. Will last six months when made.

To make Vanilla Sugar:

In a food processor, mix together 1 coarsly chopped vanilla pod and 4 cups of white sugar, until the black flecks of the chopped pod are evenly distributed.


Pure vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction and 35 percent alcohol

The word vanilla derived from the Spanish name of the spice, vainilla, is is a diminutive of vaina “sheath, vagina, pod." Nice info, eh?

“Vanilla is the world's most labor-intensive agricultural crop. It will take up to three years after the vines are planted before the first flowers appear. The fruits, which resemble big green beans, must remain on the vine for nine months in order to completely develop their signature aroma. However, when the beans are harvested, they have neither flavor nor fragrance. They develop these distinctive properties during the curing process.” –

Bourbon vanilla is named for the islands now known as Reunion and the Comoros, but in the early 19th century were called the Bourbon Islands. The Bourbon vanilla plant stock originally came from Mexico

Wow, sounds dreamy. And I thought the williams sonoma stuff was good! In Heidelberg the only thing I've found is vanilla powder, which I have wholeheartedly avoided. I will keep my eyes open for the pods (bug eyed open!), and some good vodka :)
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