El Tajín, Veracruz, Mexico
I love vanilla. Just love it. Vanilla is native to Mexico and the product made its world debut in Europe in the 1500s. It wasn't until the mid 1800s that it was cultivated elsewhere with the discovery that hand pollination of the orchid was possible. From there it ended up along the Indian Ocean in places like Madagascar, the west Indies and South and Central America. In our travels, we've seen it cultivated in India, northern Mexico, Nicaragua and Madagascar.
Just near El Tajín, a world heritage site in Veracruz, Mexico, I was able to buy my first bundle of vanilla beans from a village girl and her grandfather. My luggage smelled lovely for the rest of our trip as we drove from Madison, Wisconsin to Mérida, Yucatán. I closely guarded those beans for several years. Then I hit the jack pot. Ben spent ten weeks in Madgascar in 2009 on two plant collecting trips and brought back more vanilla than I knew what to do with. We've given a lot away to friends and made lots of vanilla extract, allowing me to be very liberal in my use of vanilla in baking. Here is our method for making the extract.
Vanilla planifolia from Madagascar
Start with some vanilla beans and good vodka. We use Absolut. Take one shot worth of vodka out of the bottle and then cut the vanilla beans lengthwise, just until the end so the pods are still in one piece. Slip the beans into the vodka bottle. Cap and place in a dark cabinet for at least six months. That is it!
You might be covered in vanilla beans, but that just gives you a nice perfume for the rest of the day. Pieter even had them all over his face like glitter! Below is our vanilla - right: vanilla that was made in 2009; left: vanilla made yesterday.