The humble vanilla pod can be put to many great uses.
Galeries Lafayette is a must-see Parisian Department store. The fabulous Art Nouveau building houses one of the best food halls in Paris. Vanilla was featured there on my last visit - bundles of plump, black, sticky beans were stacked around the hall and a heady perfume filled the air. Sensuous, exotic, evocative and downright sexy, vanilla has many stories to tell.
The flowers of an orchid plant (genus Vanilla) must be pollinated within four hours of opening to produce a green vanilla bean nine months later. These beans then spend three months being dried and cured to develop their aroma and flavours. A cultivated vanilla vine lasts around 10 years and needs constant pruning and twining. Production is labour intensive.
History records the role of the Aztecs, Spanish and French in spreading this Mexican native around the world and, as with any commodity that is rare and desired, it is a tale full of intrigue.
Closer to home, in Tonga, the Ross family established a vanilla plantation in 2003 as part of an aid project. Named after the national flower of Tonga, Heilala, their vanilla products are fast finding their way on to the international market. Grown organically and adhering to the principles of sustainability and fair trade, Heilala has managed to create a business model that gives it control from "plantation to pantry".
After the annual harvest, the beans are sent to Tauranga where the product range is made and packaged. Heilala offers the results of this production in the form of vanilla beans, vanilla extract, vanilla paste, vanilla syrup and vanilla sugar. I used all these in this food shoot.
These products are of the highest quality, they are beautifully packaged and I can envisage them sitting on the shelves of Galeries Lafayette. They deserve to be showcased with the world's best.
Keep the pods in a cool, dry dark place. A screw-top jar is a good way to store them.
Use them to infuse milk, cream, syrups or alcohols to achieve a true vanilla flavour. Split the pod to allow the seeds to imbue their luxurious taste.
Scape the seeds into your liquids for a more intense result.
Remove the pod once you have the depth of vanilla you require, dry the bean then bury it in a jar of castor sugar to make vanilla sugar.
Use this for making desserts, sprinkling over grilled fruit, whipping into cream, in baking or sweetening your coffee.
A simple way to make an extract is to split 3 vanilla beans, put them in a glass bottle or jar and cover them with vodka. Store in a cool place for two months before using. This will last for years and may be topped up with vodka. Use this extract as you would vanilla essence or as the base for vanilla-flavoured cocktails.