The Gastronomer: Vanilla, sweet and savory
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
In the world of cooking, vanilla is a synonym for enigma. We love it, but we don't quite know why. Hold a plump vanilla bean in your hand or make vanilla ice cream, and the whole room will smell of vanilla. You instinctively know something special is going on. Your body feels it.
For a while, your whole world is scented with one of the most seductive spices. There is something more than just sweetness, though, and that something is what keeps eluding us. Sniff it once, and you notice something burnt, almost tobacco-like. Smell it a second time, and it's musky. Once more, and you find something oily. And when you sniff your fingers a few hours later, or just rinse off the pots and pans, there will be new aromas you hadn't noticed before, ones that will disappear just as quickly as they revealed themselves.
Such complexity and multidimensionality have made vanilla one of the most sought-after and copied spices. But its use is still fairly limited. We add it to sweet dishes to emphasize their sweetness. And that's about it. Although homemade vanilla ice cream is one of the most wonderful things I know, I don't think we should stop there.
Vanilla also can be used in savory dishes. Try it with pork, for example, and you might find that it is a natural pairing, in many ways much more rewarding than a sweet one. If it doesn't quite unlock the secrets of vanilla, it might help expand our understanding of, and appreciation for, the stuff.
I have a long-standing fascination with vanilla, and in connection with a book I wrote on spices ("Where Flavor Was Born," Chronicle, 2007), I tried to trace vanilla all the way back to where it grows. I chose to go to Reunion Island, the French department (or county) off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, where some of the best vanilla in the world is grown. In the early 19th century, some of the first vanilla plantations were established there. At first they were a great failure. The vanilla plants would grow and even flower, but they didn't produce fruits (or pods). The isolated island lacked the rich insect life of Mexico, where the wild plants would be pollinated by bees. Not until 1841, when a young slave named Edmund Albius found a way to pollinate the flowers artificially, did the plantations manage to grow vanilla commercially. (In the 1890s, Reunion surpassed Mexico to become the world's largest producer of vanilla, a position today held by Madagascar.)
As I stood in a rainforest on Reunion, surrounded by vanilla vines with their fat, green pods, the first thing that struck me was that it didn't smell like much of anything. Apart from the normal wet smells of the rainforest, there was nothing that reminded me of vanilla. And therein lies another of vanilla's secrets: In its original state, neither the flower, plant nor pod has that characteristic fragrance. Only after the slightly unripe pod has been picked and cured or fermented for about three months do the aromas start to develop. Vanilla remains incredibly expensive -- second in price only to saffron -- due to the complexities of growing and producing it. If the curing is not done under optimal conditions, if it is too dry or too humid, or, worst of all, if it is done too quickly, many of the aromas will not develop properly. The result won't necessarily be off, just not quite up to its potential.
One of the main components of vanilla is vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde), and when vanilla is being imitated in commercial products it is by artificially produced vanillin. Vanillin is a compound that can also be found in wood material; artificial vanilla is a byproduct of the cellulose industry. This "artificial vanilla" has nothing to do with real vanilla; it re-creates some of the sweetness but it is more like a primitive relief than a lifelike portrait. Real vanilla contains about 2.5 percent vanillin, but in addition, and just as important, are its 200 other aroma compounds that have been identified. There may still be many others that are too ephemeral and inconstant for us to know their effects. Doubtless that is one of the main characteristics that make true vanilla impossible to copy.
On Reunion Island, vanilla is not only a backbone of the economy and an important part of history. Even if the rainforest doesn't smell of vanilla, the homes, restaurants and even bars do.
When I first heard of the Reunionnaise tradition of using vanilla in savory dishes, I thought the result would be too much, too sweet. But because of the complexity of the aromas, it has the ability to work in a multitude of settings. Just as a skilled conversationalist can be different things to different people and bring out the qualities of others, vanilla is equally comfortable paired with cheap rum, as in a Reunionnaise rhum arrange, or with fish. Add it to roast chicken, fatty duck or pork, and vast new landscapes open. With shellfish, it underlines and elaborates on the intrinsic sweetness of lobster or prawns, yet does not render the food less savory.
One of my favorite summer dishes is grilled pork chops with vanilla and peaches, where the aromas and the slight smokiness from the grill make life feel sweet, without making dinner taste like dessert.