Greeting Lucky Ones!

This month’s ingredient spotlight is on Vanilla. One whiff and I’m a kid again, in the kitchen of my childhood. The heady fragrance always evokes the wonderful memory of my dad making his signature milkshakes for us kids. Whatever flavor he was concocting at the time, he always made a great show about his addition of vanilla extract, swearing us to mock secrecy about his “secret ingredient”.

It is an essential ingredient at LuckyGuy Bakery. We use it in every single product that we bake – and we use a lot of it, especially in our rich chocolatey brownies. Like my dad with his milkshakes, I think of it as the unsung hero of our brownies. It makes the difference between a pretty good one, and a great one, with that special something that makes it sing.

Vanilla is everywhere. Americans are the largest consumer of the extract; chances are you consume some of it (or inhale a fragrance made with it) weekly, if not daily. It’s in sweets, but also in savory dishes. It’s widely used as a fragrance in all sorts of consumer products – who doesn’t love the aroma of vanilla? It’s even used in skincare products for its antioxidant properties.

We never gave the stuff much thought outside of appreciating its great aroma and the magic it works in our recipes. Like so many things we take for granted in daily life, vanilla’s back story is fascinating. A little research revealed that it is anything but…well, vanilla! Here are just a few of the (many, many) things we learned about the exotic elixir.

  • Vanilla is the actually the fruit of a rare orchid -who knew?
  • Native to the Americas, it grows within the 20-degree band on either side of the Equator. Until the late 19th century, Mexico essentially had a monopoly on growing vanilla, but Madagascar now grows the majority of the world’s crop.
  • First used in Mexico, vanilla was prized for its fragrance, and believed to have magical properties. In the 1500s, it began to be used as a flavor, mostly in beverages. (We’ve include a recipe below for Xocolatl, the Aztec royal beverage in which vanilla is key.)
  • Vanilla has a long history of robbery and intrigue. In areas where theft is a problem, growers brand the individual beans with pins or a knife when they are green and the marks remain after the beans are dried. Whenever someone suspects that their beans are stolen, the distinctive “tattoo” shows the origin of the bean.
  • Vanilla is the most labor intensive crop in the world. Other than in some parts of Mexico where the plants are pollinated by two varieties of bees, vanilla is hand pollinated. Because vanilla orchids flower once a year and live for less than a day, it’s an especially time-sensitive (and precarious) process.
  • Beans stay on the vine for 9 months to develop, and then go through an intensive month to six-weeks of processing. They are cured, dried and then massaged to bring out their fragrant oils. After that, they rest for another couple of months before being shipped.
  • Vanilla pricing is subject to pretty dramatic fluctuations based on supply, demand, political unrest, and weather conditions. It’s a relatively tiny crop compared to other tropical luxury crops like cacao and coffee, so small changes result in large swings. In the last six years, vanilla prices have gone up by 5 times! (We continue to use the real stuff even as prices have soared. We don’t use artificial ingredients, ever.)

There are many more fascinating facts about vanilla – a simple search on the internet will lead you down all sorts of rabbit holes (Felix’s favorite kinds, of course). If you need a snack to sustain you, might we suggest a LuckyGuy treat?