There is a relatively new, but very promising industry in tropical Far North Queensland – the production and processing of vanilla beans. I was recently in the area, and bought some of these local beans, and a bottle of vanilla extract. They are reputed to be amongst the highest vanillin-content beans grown anywhere in the world, and I can’t wait to try them out. My Little Sister lives in the region, and has her very own vanilla orchid vine in her very own little piece of rainforest paradise. It is going to be fascinating watching (from our terrible distance) how it grows.
As a child, I thought that ‘vanilla’, when it referred to milkshakes and ice-cream, meant ‘unflavoured’. Naturally, I defaulted to chocolate, given the choice. I was clearly not alone in my belief. The concept has pervaded our language, so that if we wish to identify something as bland, or uninteresting, we label it ‘vanilla.’ This is irony in the extreme, for true vanilla has a unique, intense fragrance and flavour. Perhaps we have been too much influenced by the sad fact that 95% of ‘vanilla’ products actually contain artificial vanillin derived from a variety of sources.
My own childhood preference for chocolate-flavour over vanilla-flavour is also ironic, for in its place of origin, Mexico, the vanilla bean was used to flavour that other marvellous gift from the New World – chocolate. When the Spanish arrived in what is now Mexico, ‘chocolatl’ was a beverage believed to have aphrodisiac properties, and was reserved for the very privileged. Cortez said of Montezuma that he "took no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate, flavored with vanilla and spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth and was taken cold."
I give you some nineteenth century instructions for making Vanilla Chocolate, which was quite a different preparation from the one made for Montezuma before he entered his harem. First, you must make your basic chocolate from scratch. From The complete cook: Plain and practical directions for cooking and housekeeping, (1846) by J. M. Sanderson:-
The Making of Chocolate.
An iron pestle and mortar is requisite for this purpose, also a stone of the closest grain and texture which can be procured, and a rolling-pin made of the same material, or of iron. The stone must be fixed in such a manner that it may be heated from below with a pot of burning charcoal, or something similar.
Warm the mortar and pestle by placing them on a stove, or by means of charcoal, until they are so hot that you can scarcely bear your hand against them. Wipe the mortar out clean, and put any convenient quantity of your prepared [cacao] nuts in it, which you pound until they are reduced to an oily paste into which the pestle will sink by its own weight. If it is required sweet, add about one-half, or two-thirds of its weight of loaf sugar in powder; again pound it so as to mix it well together, then put it in a pan, and place it in the stove to keep warm. Take a portion of it and roll or grind it well on the slab with the roller (both being previously heated like the mortar) until it is reduced to a smooth impalpable paste, which will melt in the mouth like butter. When this is accomplished, put it in another pan, and keep it warm until the whole is similarly disposed of; then place it again on the stone, which must not be quite so warm as previously, work it over again, and divide it into pieces of two, four, eight, or sixteen ounces each, which you put in moulds. Give it a shake, and the chocolate will become flat. When cold it will easily turn out.
Ten pounds of prepared nuts, ten pounds of sugar, vanilla two ounces and a half, cinnamon one ounce, one drachm of mace, and two drachms of cloves, or the vanilla may be used solely.
Prepare your nuts according to the directions already given. Cut the vanilla in small bits, pound it fine with part of the sugar, and mix it with the paste; boil about one-half of the sugar to the blow before you mix it to the chocolate, otherwise it will eat hard. Proceed as before, and either put it in small moulds or divide it in tablets, which you wrap in tinfoil. This is in general termed eatable chocolate.
There is much more to tell you about vanilla, but that must wait for another day.
Quotation for the Day.The centuries last passed have also given the taste important extension; the discovery of sugar, and its different preparations, of alcoholic liquors, of wine, ices, vanilla, tea and coffee, have given us flavors hitherto unknown.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin