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 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.