This is part 4 of Chocolate Ingredients Series:
Ingredients Part 1
Ingredients Part 2
Ingredients Part 3
This whole post will be dedicated to vanilla, one of the common spice often found in chocolate. Problem with vanilla is that this is a very expensive spice up there with saffron and truffle. It is super popular not only in food and drinks but also in other products such as candle, shampoo, and etc. It can be connoisseured independently from chocolate. It is tremendously laborious and resource intensive to grow and harvest. Climate change has also greatly limit the supply of quality vanilla. As a result, most vanilla flavored product out there use imitation vanilla or vanilla essence. Few sticks of organic vanilla beans cost $14.
Here is a link to a brief history of vanilla.
Imitation Vanilla - The basic flavor ingredients of most imitation vanillas are USP Vanillin and/or Ethyl Vanillin. USP Vanillin is an artificial product derived from a by-product of the paper industry. Ethyl Vanillin, is three times as strong as USP Vanillin and is made by a chemical process from Guaiacol, a coal tar derivative. Most cheap vanilla products use imitation vanilla. Think about that next time you order a non-fat vanilla late from Starbucks. Is it paper or tar you are consuming?
Types of Vanilla
Although vanilla is native to Mexico, it is now grown in subtropical areas around the world. Each region produces beans with distinctive flavors because of the specific terroir, or characteristics of the local environment such as climate, soil and geography. Even in the same region, however, crops can vary greatly from year to year depending on elements of terroir, and on the timing and care taken in harvesting, curing and processing.
Madagascar is the world's largest producer of vanilla beans, and the purest, most straightforward vanilla. Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla is known for its smooth and mellow flavor.
Mexico now produces only a small percentage of the world's harvest, but it can be absolutely fabulous. It tends to have spicy notes, possibly from the orange trees that some growers use as 'tutors' for the vines to climb up. Mexican vanilla goes well with chocolate, because what grows together goes together. Cocoa and vanilla have grown together in Mexico since before the Aztecs famously married the two flavors.
Tahitian Vanilla comes from a different species of vanilla orchid. Culinary people, especially pastry chefs, love Tahitian. It isn't as strong in the vanilla component and has citrus and floral tones that can be very complex. Tahiti grows and exports a relatively small amount of vanilla, so you will have to search for it—and pay for it.
Similar to chocolate and coffee, vanilla are grown in impoverished nations, and it is important to look for try to buy fair trade vanilla whenever possible.