Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Herbs and Spices -- Vanilla

Number seven in the Christmas Herbs and Spices is Vanilla.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron because of the extensive labor involved in cultivating the pods. The word vanilla is derived from the Spanish word vainilla which means little pod. But I thought I knew all about vanilla. Doesn't it come from a bean?

Actually, vanilla starts out as a vine-like climbing plant which produces an orchid- type flower. The "bean" is actually a fruit. It ripens gradually after flowering, taking 8 or 9 months to complete the process. When it has turned black in color, it gives off that wonderful strong aroma we're all so familiar with. There are thousands of seeds in each pod, but it is the pod itself that is used to create the vanilla flavor.

I took an herb class once and the instructor told us that we could easily make our own vanilla flavoring by putting a vanilla bean pod or two in a jar with a good quality Bourbon. Leave it in a tightly closed jar for a few weeks and voila - vanilla!!
Well, that might work, but after tasting some real vanilla that my daughter brought back from Mexico for me, I knew the difference! I made that bottle last for a loooong time.

I know for a fact that there is a high alcohol content in vanilla flavoring. Once when I was young, I had a cold and was coughing quite a bit. Our cough syrup was in a small dark brown bottle similar to the vanilla bottle. Just before I was to go out the door to school, my mother said " Wait - take some of this." She reached up in the cupboard and grabbed the vanilla by mistake. I got a large teaspoonful in my mouth before she realized what had happened. I promptly spit it out in the sink. What a shock! It's been a joke in the family ever since.

The first people to cultivate vanilla were the Totonics from the Mazantla Valley on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in VeraCruz. Mythology states the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat had been forbidden by her father from ever marrying a mortal. As love would have it, she fell in love with a mortal anyway and fled to the forest to be with him. The lovers were captured and beheaded (what kind of father does that?) Wherever their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical vanilla orchid grew.
That's kind of sad for a Christmas tale, but the flavoring and aroma of vanilla can lift our spirits.
In cooking it is used it in cakes, cookies, and many other types of recipes. In aromatherapy, it's a great scent for candles and oils.
What better flavor is there than a good vanilla ice cream?
And did you know that vanilla also has medicinal properties? It can be used to control fevers and has been said to be an aphrodisiac!

So, my wish for you this Christmas is that you enjoy a glass of eggnog flavored with a good vanilla. A little rum would hurt either. Happy Holidays.

Don't forget to visit An Herbal Bedfellow for healthy recipes made with herbs, and also my newest blog:
Happenstance House -- A journal about my Victorian home and all of it's contents.


Kate said...

Fascinating! I had no idea.

Hmmm... I wonder if I could grow a vanilla plant indoors...

The Quintessential Magpie said...

Jane Marie, this is probably my very favorite spice... both in flavor and in scent! Love it SO much.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas! I am making my blog rounds before the holiday to wish you the happiest of holidays. May all your Christmas wishes and dreams come true...


Sheila :-)

Rose said...

I love the smell of vanilla--it's my favorite fragrance for candles. Thanks for all this fascinating information about its origin.

I'm sorry it's been so long since I've stopped by--thanks for the lovely Christmas music here. I do hope you are well, and I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas, Jane Marie!

Randy Emmitt said...

Jane Marie,

Enjoyed learning about vanilla! Had no ideal it was an orchid. Thanks for your blog too!
Have a wonderful Christmas and happy New Years!

Digital Flower Pictures said...

It does have a nice flower. I love the botanical drawings in your posts. It is always cool to see those.