(Not so) Plain Vanilla

100_4048 smI knew I would be picking strawberries later in the day, so this morning when I was baking I made a simple vanilla cake, because it would go well with the berries.

But why do we consider vanilla simple, plain?

Vanilla is an exotic spice, made from the bean of a tropical orchid. Like most orchids, it has evolved a close relationship with it’s pollinator, and is only pollinated by one genus of bees. Outside its native Mexican range, vanilla must be hand pollinated. Though vanilla was introduced to Europe in the 1500s, it was more than 300 years before a viable hand-pollination technique was developed, allowing vanilla to be grown throughout the tropics.

To make vanilla even trickier to cultivate, it cannot germinate without the presence of specific mycorrhizal fungi.

Add to that the fact that it grows in regions prone to hurricanes and cyclones (which regularly wipe out regional production), and it’s not surprising that vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron.

So, why do we think of vanilla as ordinary and plain?

Perhaps it comes from the fact that vanillin, the artificial vanilla flavour that is used in 95% of “vanilla” flavoured products is made from lignin, a by-product of the papermaking industry. That makes artificial vanilla much cheaper than real vanilla—cheap enough to use in everything. Unfortunately, vanillin is only one of 171 different aromatic compounds found in the real vanilla bean, which is why artificial vanilla tastes so…well…plain.

This lovely, exotic spice has been rendered plain by its cheap imitation.

I use only real vanilla.

It’s not plain.

But it goes great with strawberries!