Friday, February 12, 2010

A Manifesto Condemning Vanilla Sex

The expression, not the act: why would anyone, when suggesting blandness, invoke the most complex and exotic of spices?

At Underbelly, little turns us on like a dark, aromatic Madagascar vanilla pod.

Sometimes a pod is not just a pod.

Consider: Vanilla encompasses 100 odd species of the tropical orchid Vanilla V. planifolia. First cultivated by the Totanac Indians along the coast of Mexico near Veracruz 1000 years ago, the spice migrated north to the Aztecs, and then to France via Spain.

The vanilla orchid gets naturally polinated only by insects native to Central America; it couldn't be grown in the Old World until a Belgian botanist devised a technique for polinating it by hand, flower by flower. This innovation allowed the French to plant vanilla on the islands of Madagascar, RĂ©union, and Comoros, off the southeast coast of Africa. These islands collectively produce what we call Bourbon Vanilla. Mexico and Tahiti produce the remainder of the world's highest quality crops.

Perhaps the misconceptions of blandness come from an ironic coincidence: the same colonialism that sent vanilla to the eastern hemisphere did the same for Christian missionaries (and their associated position).

Vanilla, you should know, demands prolonged foreplay: production starts with hand-polination and six-to-nine months of growing. The pods are killed, with great discipline, then cycled through alternating periods of heat and wet-wrapping for several days, to stimulate enzymatic flavor development. The pods are then straightened and smoothed by hand, air dried for several weeks, and finally cured for up to several months.

The result is the second most expensive spice in the world, behind saffron (which costs as much as $5000.00 per pound)

Some tasting notes: bourbon vanilla has a round, slighly sweet, deeply layered flavor. Mexican vanilla tends toward spiciness. Tahitian vanilla has the weakest flavor, but an assertive, complex, floral aroma. All of the vanillas are unusually layered and complex compared with other spices.

Vanilla has also been used for centuries as medicine. Clinical studies suggest antibacterial potential. Others show that vanilla stimulates epinephrine production, and can therefore be mildly addictive. In traditional medicine it's been used both as a fever reducer and (most significantly) an aphrodesiac.

If anyone describes you as "vanilla," thank them. Then politely excuse yourself from their boudoir / motel room / dungeon. They don't deserve to get into your pantry.