When Vanilla is Not Vanilla

More often than not, when we a recipe calls for vanilla extract, we are quick to head to the nearest supermarket or grocery store and purchase what’s available there. Reading the fine print on the label, however, usually reveals that what most supermarkets actually sell is imitation vanilla extract, rather than the real thing. For most of us, using imitation vanilla extract at home is perfectly fine. That said, having such plentiful access to the real deal locally makes its exploration irresistible.

Vanilla is derived from the orchids from the genus Vanilla, which is most commonly found throughout Mexico. It has been cultivated since Pre-Columbian times and Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes is credited to having introduced both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1950s.

Vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron because growing vanilla seed pods is a labor-intensive task. But while pure vanilla extract is more expensive than the products commonly found at the supermarket, the fact that it is produced only from natural vanilla beans, water and alcohol, makes it superior and more flavorful than the imitation when used to prepare baked goods, ice creams and other sweets.

If you’ve never examined a vanilla vine up-close, they are plentiful at the Vallarta
Botanical Garden, where staff will eagerly point them out and highlight their properties. Once you’ve learned to identify the vanilla plant, you will be pleasantly surprised to find it just about anywhere along the various hiking paths available for you to explore at the Garden.

To cut open a vanilla bean all you need is a sharp knife and a cutting board. Place the knife in the center of the vanilla bean just below the curled top of the bean. Slowly cut into the bean trying not to puncture it all the way through the bottom. Continue down the center until you’ve reached the end of the bean. Slightly pull it apart to reveal the insides (known as caviar). Finally, scrape the vanilla bean caviar by running the knife down the bean.

For an excellent local source of pure vanilla extract, whether you wish to experiment with it at home or bring back to friends north of the border as a souvenir, this is a good option.