With cheap imitation vanilla essence providing the ultimate non-flavour, in the late 20th century ‘vanilla’ had become a synonym for ‘banal’. It was the ice cream that went with everything because it tasted of nothing.

But over the last two decades tastebuds have been reawakened to real vanilla, “the Chanel No. 5 of the spice world”, as it’s described on a recent BBC Food Programme.

This process has been led by chefs and adopted by home cooks who now have a range of black-dotted vanilla products to choose from.

Vanilla smoothie
Vanilla smoothie made with Heilala vanilla paste

Vanilla was one of the important foods of New World discovery in the 1500s, but the industry was almost wiped out after chemists invented the synthetic flavouring in the 19th Century. Few were willing to pay the high prices for this extremely labour-intensive flavouring.

Vanilla is the pod of an orchid. On the one day of the year it flowers it needs to be hand-pollinated as the bees small enough to fit into the flowers are very rare.

This BBC Radio 4 Food Programme podcast delves into the resurgence of the vanilla industry. The programme visits a plantation in Uganda producing high-quality vanilla while retaining high labour standards for its workers.

In New Zealand we have local brand Heilala Vanilla that has received attention and accolades (like a Cuisine Artisan Award in 2011) for its vanilla from Tonga. They have even produced a crop of New Zealand vanilla – the first commercial crop grown outside the equatorial belt.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Vanilla paste is such a wonderful invention, they are so easy to use. I’ve stopped using vanilla pods, even though they have a more intense aroma and flavour. Love the smoothie idea!

    1. Claire says:

      I’m ashamed to say I’ve never tried a recipe with real vanilla pods! I should certainly try them once. Loving the vanilla paste in smoothies, frostings etc. For years I never really thought about what vanilla was adding to baking though I would dutifully add the teaspoon (of imitation essence) called for by many recipes in the Edmonds cookbook! Apparently vanilla is actually considered a bitter flavour…

  2. Love your description of vanilla as the Chanel No 5 of the spice world, that’s so accurate! Can’t wait to try the Heilala vanilla paste 🙂 Great round-up of its interesting story 🙂

    1. Claire says:

      Thanks 🙂 (The Chanel No 5 quote was from the BBC programme – it’s a good one!) Get stuck into that vanilla paste…

  3. Jill says:

    Vanilla is the pod of an orchid – that’s amazing . Must look out for the vanilla paste

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