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The secret life of vanilla: It's not just the opposite of chocolate

The secret life of vanilla: It's not just the opposite of chocolate


Chef’s Table is an occasional feature in which local culinary professionals and home chefs weigh in with tips and techniques that can be put to use in the home kitchen on topics including but not limited to ingredients, dishes and cooking equipment.

Vanilla gets a bad rap. When someone wants to say that something is uninteresting or uninspiring, he or she might say, “That’s so vanilla.”

When it comes to ice cream, vanilla is often passed over for chocolate. With names like “triple threat death by chocolate,” vanilla sometimes has a hard time getting its footing.

Then there’s apple pie: think about vanilla ice cream with apple pie. Now rethink this dessert as apple pie with chocolate ice cream.

What some folks may not know is how exciting vanilla really is.

By its nature and in its purest form, vanilla — the extracted essence of dried vanilla pods — is a tropical plant from exotic lands. Hailing from environs including Madagascar, Tonga, India, Uganda, Indonesia, Thailand and Mexico, vanilla carries with it flavor notes from its unique homelands.

How many flavor notes? At present count, 494; some have hints of cherry or anise, others of flowers, smoke or chocolate.

As for exotic and rare, the process of producing a single vanilla pod is more labor intensive than that of saffron. Throw in a bad weather cycle and dried vanilla pods can command as much as $600 per kilo ($300 per pound).

Among the most well-versed on the complexities and possibilities of vanilla are members of the Nielsen family, owners and operators of Nielsen-Massey, longtime purveyors of “fine vanillas and flavors.”

At their Waukegan, Ill., production plant last week, Beth and Matt Nielsen, two of the company’s three sibling co-owners, shared both the history and mysteries of vanilla to a group of food writers and chefs.

The behind-the-scenes event included a baking demonstration by cake baker and Food Network celebrity Chef Marina Sousa, a tour of the vanilla factory floor and a tasting of single origin vanillas from around the world.

Matt and Beth are third generation co-owners of the company that was founded in 1907 in Sterling, Ill., by Richard Massey and joined later by Chatfield Nielsen Sr. After several moves and expansions, Nielsen-Massey settled in Waukegan in 1992.

A short history of vanilla

Why vanilla is so expensive is intimately tied to its history, say the Nielsens.

Beth Nielsen related that the first vanilla in the world was cultivated only in Mexico. It was brought to Europe by Spanish explorers who had discovered it in a drink they found there called Chocolatl.

“They found that the secret ingredient that made it pop was flavoring from the dried pods of an orchid,” she said.

Long story short, the Spanish brought the plant back to Europe thinking “they would rule the world with this incredible thing called vanilla” only to discover that the plant could not survive in Spain. Realizing it needed a tropical climate, they moved some plants to the French islands of Madagascar. There the plant grew but did not blossom.

Discovering that in Mexico the vanilla orchid was pollinated by specific species of bee, they created a work-around by finding workers adept in hand-pollinating the flowers.

“To this day, vanilla flowers are hand-pollinated,” Beth said. Compounding the labor (and cost) is the fact that not all of the flowers on the plant can be pollinated at once because this will stress the plant, she added.

The pods begin as a long, green bean-like fruit, which are then blanched and dried in the sun and “sweated” in a box until they have shrunk into thin, dark brown, semi-moist sticks.

“The timeline from hand-pollination to harvest is 12 to 14 months long,” added Matt. “During this time, the plants and pods are being physically handled on a daily basis. If you’re wondering why it’s so expensive, that’s why. It’s a single harvest and it takes a year.”

Following the vanilla overview, Sousa shared tips and techniques for making brown butter shortbread cookies featuring liberal doses of pure vanilla extract.

Among the attendees at the demonstration and tour was Pleasant Prairie resident James Schend, deputy editor of magazines and food for Taste of Home.

Already a fan of using vanilla in cheesecake, Schend said the event opened up new application possibilities. “I am going to be adding vanilla to more savory dishes,” he said. “I can see how it would make just about anything more well-rounded and unctuous.

“I have always loved vanilla and never understood why people associate it with a lack of flavor or something that is simple. ... It’s such a complex flavor, and if it’s treated correctly it can really shine on its own.”

Take that, chocolate.


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Related to this story

A popular element of a tour of the Nielsen-Massey vanilla plant in Waukegan, Ill., is the rare opportunity to taste test vanillas of the world.

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