When it comes to cooking with vanilla, only the real deal will do…

Vanilla is a classic, comforting, dependable flavour found in everything from ice cream to fizzy drinks, but it also has a reputation for being, dare we say it, a bit boring – after all, the name is often used as a not-too-flattering way to describe someone or something as rather plain and ordinary. However, this is likely because the taste commonly known as vanilla doesn’t come close to the genuine article; as growing vanilla is expensive and labour-intensive (it needs to be meticulously pollinated by hand, and the time period between growing and eating is usually four and a half years) most of the vanilla-flavoured foods sold in supermarkets are instead made using artificial vanilla essence, a cheap, chemically synthesised substitute that just doesn’t do the real thing justice.

Yet it’s not only our tastebuds that miss out when we scoff treats made with this vanilla substitute – the vanilla plant itself suffers too. You might not think you’re doing any harm treating yourself to a few scoops of ice cream made with vanilla essence, but this artificial vanilla is doing a great deal of harm indeed to the vanilla plant, albeit indirectly. As the use of real vanilla has fallen in favour of this cheaper substitute, vanilla farmers in Madagascar are deforesting the vanilla crops (the vanilla orchid needs a host tree to grow) to make space to produce palm oil, which is more in demand. In fact, vanilla expert, Patricia Rain, says: ‘we’re on the precipice where we could lose pure vanilla within a generation if we don’t act now.’

Devon-based company, LittlePod, which sells responsibly sourced vanilla pods, pastes and extracts, have launched the Campaign for Real Vanilla in association with charitable organisation, Blue Ventures, to publicise the plight of the vanilla orchid and get us all buying real vanilla again. LittlePod has three aims: to make quality, real vanilla accessible to everyone; to inform people of its history and diversity; and to aid the farmers who rely on the vanilla industry to make a living. They’ll be donating 10 per cent of all their online sales to Blue Ventures to raise funds that will help to preserve the fragile ecosystems and aid communities in Madagascar.

Dr Vik Mohan from Blue Ventures says: ‘Blue Ventures works with some of the world’s poorest tropical coastal communities, empowering them to develop and to manage their natural resources sustainably. We are delighted to be partnering with LittlePod, and are extremely grateful for their support to continue this vitally important work. We are two dynamic organisations, both deeply attached to the amazing country that is Madagascar.’

LittlePod’s signature product, natural vanilla paste in a squeezy aluminium tube, has been described as a much-needed ‘evolution in the kitchen’ by food critic Tom Beeston, and has been cited in River Cottage Handbook No. 8 as an ‘essential store cupboard ingredient.’ LittlePod has also received endorsements from celebrity chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Mary Berry. So, next time you use vanilla in your baking or cooking, make sure it’s the proper stuff – not only will it taste better, it’ll be more ethical and sustainable too.

LittlePod have loads of useful recipes, hints and tips on cooking with vanilla on their website – we love this recipe for Earl Grey and vanilla cake.

Earl Grey and Vanilla Cake

200g/7oz all-purpose flour
32g/ 1oz cornflour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
110g/4oz unsalted butter
170g/6oz caster sugar
3 eggs at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon of LittlePod vanilla paste
1 tbsp or three tea bags of good-quality Earl Grey tea – if you use loose tea, chop it into smaller pieces
245g/8 1/2oz whole milk

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease and flour an 8-inch round cake pan. In a bowl, combine the flour, cornflour, baking powder and salt. In a larger bowl, beat the butter, sugar, vanilla and tea leaves until light and fluffy. You want the scent of the tea leaves to emerge. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each.

Add the combined flour mixture into the wet mixture, and finally pour in the milk. Mix just until blended, being careful not to over-mix. Immediately pour into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean – around 25 minutes should do it. Let it cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes before serving, then enjoy your much-deserved afternoon tea break.

Michelle Grady

Michelle Grady

Michelle is an ex-Fed Up & Drunker who has now been released into the wild.

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