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A flavour in favour

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SHONALI MUTHALALY

Vanilla has flavoured childhood dreams and India's excellent crop of vanilla beans have found favour abroad

Ah, vanilla. Its gorgeous scent conjures up warm homemade cakes on school holidays. Here's a flavour that laced our childhoods. Then why does a vanilla bean seem so unsettlingly unfamiliar?

Probably because India's grown-up on vanilla essence. Made primarily of chemicals, the synthetic vanilla of our childhood is so cheap and plentiful it's not only captivated the country, but — ironically — also kept natural vanilla out of our domestic market, kitchens and cakes. Which is tragic considering that Indian planters grow and produce excellent vanilla beans. However, since the local market has always been quite happy with the chemical pretender, almost all of India's vanilla is exported.

This could be partly because it's so unfamiliar, since it's not an indigenous spice and therefore has no traditional links to Indian food. It has however been around for a while, since the British originally introduced it to India, according to V.K. Jagannathan of Vanam Orchids India, a company that provides support for growers. He says that the Spices Board, India, started promoting it in 2003, when Madagascar's vanilla crop failed due to a cyclone, and thus international prices hit an all time high. “There was a boom, and vanilla was selling at Rs. 6,000 a kilo. That's the highest it's been in 40 years,” he says.

Philip C. Jacob, director of the Velimalai Rubber Company, which grows vanilla on it's plantations across the southernmost tip of the Western Ghats, says that they originally found the plant in the Nilgiris about 15 years ago. “We had read about it, but didn't have details on how to cultivate it. So we simply left it in one area of our plantation (producing mainly rubber, coffee and cardamom) and it grew like crazy.” He adds, “We were just going to cut and throw it away. Then, we realized it was a gold mine.”

He adds that, ironically, they made more money selling vines than beans in 2004-2005, when planters across the country jumped on the vanilla bandwagon. Unfortunately, despite the buzz, the domestic market was never developed. Today, Philip says the price of the beans is Rs. 85 a kilo. In the absence of domestic consumers, producers are now fighting hard to sell their product in a very competitive market, in which Madagascar and Tahiti — both traditional, well-established and popular sources of vanilla beans — already have a natural advantage.

“What's happened in India is that for so many years nobody's known real vanilla,” says Philip. “When we wanted the flavour, our market was fed with synthetic vanilla. And we were happy with it in our ice-creams and cakes.” Synthetic vanilla's available for about Rs. 20 a bottle. Natural vanilla could costs ten times that, or more depending on quality.

The difference? To be honest, it's not all that dramatic — at first. The flavour's more subtle, mellow and caramelly. The scent's smooth and rich, with a softer edge. But once you get used to it, you'll never go back to the essence.

“But you have got to be really careful with the beans that are coming out,” cautions Philip, discussing how beans are categorised into various grades. Out of every kilo of beans, only 200-300 grams make the gourmet grade. Jagannathan says that what filters into the local market is usually low-grade and badly packed.

Buy beans packed in air tight bottles that look like test tubes, because they lose intensity with exposure to air. An alternative is to buy pure vanilla extract, made from the beans and alcohol. The Internet is bubbling with ideas on how to use both. It might, however, take some hunting to find good natural vanilla.

Considering how the bean's thriving in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, even as it creeps across the rest of the country, it shouldn't take too long for natural vanilla to slide into gourmet stores, and then supermarkets though.

And don't forget to breathe deep when you finally uncork a bottle of vanilla extract, or break open a moist pod. Sweet dreams are made of this.

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