At the moment, I’m working on a really interesting and fun project at college. It is still in progress, and I’ve been filling a sketchbook with ideas and thumbnails for a website about vanilla. One of the things I love most about my course is the ability to explore issues that we’re passionate about and food is a definitely recurring theme throughout my portfolio. The first step of any design project is research, and for weeks I immersed myself in anything I could find related to vanilla, from encyclopedias to cookbooks, and I even purchased some Madagascan vanilla beans to sample for myself. I think I’m addicted now, I can never go back!
Vanilla is a part of the orchid family, the largest family of flowering plants in the world. Many species of orchid are epiphytes, which means they grow on other plants, using their stronger structure for support. Epiphytes are common in tropical rainforests, to which vanilla is native. In fact the plant only thrives in tropical regions close to the equator that receive adequate rainfall such as Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar, which are now the three largest vanilla producing countries in the world.
It is the most labour intensive of all food crops, as the flowers have to be pollinated by hand. The harvested beans undergo an extensive curing and drying process that can last up to nine months, and have to be rolled away each evening to prevent theft and possible rotting due to condensation in the cooler air. Combined with factors such as the regions’ susceptibility to typhoons and the western world’s commercial reliance on pure vanilla, fluctuations in price are very common.
Today, over 95% of ‘vanilla’ products contain a synthetic flavouring derived from lignin, a by-product of paper manufacturing. Some artificial vanilla essences contain Tonka beans. They have a similar fragrance to vanilla, however are a source of the chemical Coumarin, which can be toxic and is actually banned in the United States.
In the next few weeks I hope to put my vanilla beans to good use and share some recipes, as well as more of my research and designs as the project progresses. Yesterday I made ice cream for the first time. I don’t have an ice cream maker so I used the freeze-and-mix method, which still produced incredibly smooth and utterly gorgeous ice cream. Ironically, now that summer is officially over, the weather feels more summer-like than ever. Perfect ice cream eating weather, I’d say.
Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
From Modern Classics 2 by Donna Hay
Makes about 1 litre
• 1 cup milk
• 2 cups single cream
• 1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
• 6 egg yolks
• 2/3 cup caster sugar
1. Place the milk, cream and vanilla (including the bean) in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the mixture is hot but not boiling. Remove from the heat and set aside to infuse for 15 minutes
2. Place the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl and whisk until thick and pale.
3. Remove the vanilla bean from the milk mixture, and slowly pour over the egg yolk mixture. Whisk well to combine.
4. Return the mixture to the pan and stir over low heat until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
5. Set aside to cool. A good way to do this is to fill your sink with a little cold water and a few ice cubes and place the saucepan in there.
6. Either place the custard in an ice-cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions OR place the mixture in a metal bowl or cake tin. Cover and freeze for 1 hour. Beat with an electric hand mixer and return to the freezer. Repeat three times at hourly intervals until the ice cream is thick and smooth.