In common usage, “vanilla” means plain, and “having no special or extra features”, says Ligaya Mishan in The New York Times. But there’s a disconnect between this “genial vanilla of the mind” and the “heady, almost unruly scent and flavour” of the real thing. Depending on where the beans are harvested, vanilla “may taste dark-sweet, of smoke and cherries; or earthy as chocolate and coffee; or buttery, or caramelly or plummy; or stung by the faintest numbing hint of anise”. Back in the 18th century, the spice was associated not with blandness but lust: one German physician prescribed it as “the Viagra of his day”; the Marquis de Sade purportedly used it to spike his dinner party desserts.
Vanilla beans themselves are surprisingly expensive – sometimes more so, “weight for weight”, than silver. After a 2017 cyclone devastated Madagascar, where about 80% of natural vanilla is grown, prices topped $600 a kilo. That’s why more than 99% of the world’s vanillin, the bean’s main flavour compound, is artificially synthesised from petrochemicals. Only in the past decade has consumer pressure prompted a resurgence of real vanilla, just as people now care more about the beans in their coffee and their chocolate. And rightly so. Vanilla is a “deceptively reticent” flavour – one that cedes the spotlight but “transfigures” other tastes. “It calms and contours, steadies and exalts.” It is, truly, “the spice with the Midas touch”.