In recent years, the adjective ‘vanilla’ has become a byword for ‘boring’ or ‘bland’ – perhaps due to the over-proliferation of the flavouring in everything from ice cream, to Frappuccinos, to scented candles.
However, anywhere between 90% and 97% of ‘vanilla-flavoured’ products are in fact made with vanillin, a chemical compound found in small quantities in natural vanilla but manufactured synthetically for commercial purposes. As you will know if you’ve ever used vanilla pods at home, the fragrant and complex flavour of true vanilla is very far from dull – and the same goes for its history.
Vanilla is in fact derived from the dried seed pod of a Mexican orchid, the climbing, flat-leaved Vanilla planifolia. The plant was first cultivated by the indigenous Totonac people of eastern Mexico, whose mythology had it that the orchid species grew from the blood of a beheaded princess and her lover, who were killed by the king when he caught them trying to elope.
The Aztecs, who conquered the Totonacs in the 15th century, called the climbing vanilla vines tlilxochitl, meaning ‘black flower’, in reference to the colour of the dried fruits. The name ‘vanilla’ was given to the plant later by invading Europeans in the 16th century, and comes from the Spanish word vaina, meaning sheath or pod.
In order for the vanilla orchid to produce the fruit from which vanilla flavouring is derived, the plant must be pollinated, a task undertaken in the wild by a species of Melipona bee that is native to the plant’s natural habitat. Scientists tried to develop an effective and profitable way of hand-pollinating the plants, so they could be cultivated elsewhere, without success.
It wasn’t until 1848 that a method was discovered by a twelve-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on the island of Réunion – a technique that revolutionised the cultivation of vanilla is still used to this day.
Despite Albius’ discovery, the production of vanilla is still a labour-intensive and costly process. The plants are difficult and slow to grow, taking two to three years to produce a flower, which must then be pollinated by hand immediately, as it dies within hours. The seed pods then take a further nine months to develop, and then have to be cured for several months. The whole process can take up to five years.
All this of inevitably has an impact on price, and vanilla is in fact the world’s second most expensive spice, after saffron. The majority (around 75%) of the vanilla on sale today is from Madagascar, with vanilla from Tahiti and Mexico being much rarer.
Vanilla is, in its whole-bean, essence and extract forms, widely used in many cuisines worldwide, most often to complement sweet dishes and especially chocolate. In the late 1980s, the spice became a fashionable component in savoury dishes, and these days it’s not at all unusual to see it paired with pork or fish in trendier eateries.
When it comes to gin, you shouldn’t worry that vanilla is going to turn your spirit into a kind of overly perfumed flavoured vodka. When used properly – as in Hernö Gin – the botanicals act as a supporting cast member rather than an upfront flavour, lending the gin a smoothness and creaminess as well as a hint of sweetness on the nose.
For a slightly less classy (but undeniably fun) take on the gin and vanilla combo, why not give this gin-infused ice cream float recipe a whirl?
The G&T Vanilla Float
So this might not be the most sophisticated way to drink gin, but it’s really fun – and a nice cooling treat on a hot summer day.
1 Scoop Vanilla Ice Cream
Chilled Tonic Water
Add the ice cream scoop to a chilled highball glass. Pour the gin over the ice cream. Top up very slowly with tonic (it’s important it’s chilled) and watch out for a lot of fizz!