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Vanilla has been a popular flavour for centuries. The vanilla plant (Vanilla planifolia) is a member of the huge and ancient orchid family. Originating in the rain forests of central Mexico, it was prized by the Aztecs. In the wild it grows into a tall vine and the flowers open early in the morning ready to be pollinated by humming birds and certain bees. Hand pollination allows vanilla plants to be grown commercially. Each flower stays open only for a day.

Humming birds and bees

Today, most genuine vanilla comes from the so-called Vanilla Islands – Madagascar, the Comoros Islands, Réunion, the Seychelles and Mauritius – in the Indian Ocean. Farmers open the flower buds using a thin bamboo stick and pollinate the blooms by hand to make sure that the plant produces its valuable pods. Strange to say, to people, the flowers have only a faint scent without even a hint of vanilla. Developing the simple and effective pollination method has made it possible to grow vanilla far away from humming birds and bees.

Slim, costly, dark pods

Vanilla farmers harvest the vanilla pods when they’re still yellow-green and unripe. Inside the pods are the thousands of tiny black seeds. The pods only change to the familiar dark brown, almost black, colour after being fermented with hot water and dried. The pods are sorted by size and quality and stored for several weeks while they develop their full flavour. When you read bourbon vanilla on a package, you can be sure the vanilla pods or powder inside comes from the plant Vanilla planifolia Andrews grown in the Vanilla Islands. The pods are long, and thin and have a rich vanilla flavour.

From icecream to tropical cocoa

Vanilla pods are often used whole (being split and the tiny beans scraped into the mixture) to infuse flavour into cream and custard based sauces, cakes and icecream. Not so conventionally, vanilla adds a piquant note to savoury dishes, for example, marinated pumpkin in vanilla, venison with a pepper-vanilla sauce or chestnut-vanilla puree. Or enjoy a steaming hot and aromatic vanilla cocoa – heat milk with a vanilla pod, cinnamon, orange peel and cocoa powder to boiling point. Remove from the heat, slit the pod and scrape the vanilla seeds into the milk. Let everything infuse for 20 minutes. Reheat and pour through a sieve into heated mugs.

Buying and storing

Store vanilla pods in airtight containers, the flavour will last longest – at least three years – if they’re kept cool and dark. Mexican and bourbon vanilla can develop a whitish coating of natural vanillin crystals. This doesn’t mean you should throw them out, on the contrary it’s a sign of special quality. You can recognise high quality vanilla pods by their rich, intensive aroma and their slightly oily surface. Avoid pods that are hard, greyish or brittle. If you’ve used a vanilla pod to infuse milk, for example, it can be reused. Simply rinse it off, let it dry and store it again in its airtight container.


Source: Heike Kreutz,