Vanilla, Gorgeous Heady Vanilla

I love vanilla.  I really do.  I blogged about it as a spice back in May 2009 under Vanilla – the temperamental diva.

At Steenbergs, we have had such a good run with our organic Fairtrade vanilla extract that we are nearly down to our last few drops.  So last week, we got delivery of a new batch of organic Fairtrade vanilla beans and after Lee did the initial prep work he said that these Madagascan beans are of the most superior quality, and Lee’s hard to please! 

Gorgeous organic vanilla

Gorgeous organic vanilla

Well, I suppose that’s what you would expect from our new suppliers from the Antsirabe Nord region of Northern Eastern Madagascar; these beans have much more luxuriant richness and depth of the character than our last batch of beans, which hailed from Kerala in India.  Think of it as the difference between a New World wine and a Premier Cru from France; everything’s the same but the terroir in France just creates more character.

I am really excited by our vanilla at the moment.  We’re getting a better quality extraction at present than before.  Also, we have a great range of classic gourmet vanilla products – Steenbergs organic Madagascan gourmet vanilla beans (vanilla pods), organic vanilla powder (that’s gorgeous beans from Mananara that have been ground to a rich black powder, that looks like gunpowder in the old Western films but smells like heaven), organic vanilla extract powder (that’s the extract dried onto a dextrin base to remove the alcohol). 

The gourmet beans are actually from a Fairtrade source and we trade these into Crazy Jack’s and Essential Trading who pack them off as organic and Fairtrade, so we need to get our act together and actually launch them as Fairtrade!  It’s a bit ridiculous as we have had the product approved by Fairtrade and done the design work for them but never actually pushed the go button; soon, I assure you.

Mountain gorilla from Virunga Mountains

Mountain gorilla from Virunga Mountains

I (that’s me Axel Steenberg) have also sourced a wonderful organic vanilla from the Democratic Republic of Congo from the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains in the Virunga National Park and near Lake Edouard, which is one of the two strongholds for the rare mountain gorilla (the other is Bwindi Inpenetrable Forest in Uganda). 

I came across them whilst reading Tim Butcher’s book  (Blood River – A Journey To Africa’s Broken Heart) about following in the footsteps of Stanley down the River Congo, like a latter day Kurtz, dodging the insurgents on the back of a motorbike or travelling down the lazy, languid Congo River on a pirogue; hence finding them was really poignant. 

These Congolese organic vanilla pods have a different character to those from Madagascar and will be in short supply as getting them is really, really hard – these organic vanilla beans have a rawer, earthier flavour, full of chocolatey aromas but also an underlying sweet leathery intensity.

Now, I’ve added mysterious tonka beans to this flavour package.  This is banned in the USA because it contains coumarin, an anticoagulant, but banning it almost makes it more exciting.  And the top world chefs like Gordon Ramsay at Petrus-Gordon Ramsay or Alex Stupak at wd-50 or Ferran Adrià at El Bulli use it, so let’s try it I say.

Tonka beans (memories of Tonka toys and that takes me a long way back) are the seeds of Dipteryx oderata, which originates from Venezuela in the Orinoco river basin.  The main sources of tonka beans are Nigeria and Venezuela. 

Tonka beans

Tonka beans

It looks like a flat, wrinkled deep black bean/nut with a shape that’s reminiscent of an almond and a look that’s a cross between a prune and date.  They have a flavour and aroma that is full of volatiles and immediately remiscent of vanilla but with more esters coming through like pear drops or furniture polish, with hints of magnolia and other warming, sweet spices notes like cinnamon, cloves and allspice.  It is used in French cuisine and sometimes for perfumes, and even flavouring tobacco.

Anyway, Steenbergs tonka beans come from Venezuela and a little goes a long way as they are very specialist and very strong – completely decadent and slightly naughty.  You use them like a nutmeg and grate them, so you could cook with them as a garnish over coffee or into cream or over stewed rhubarb.  I’ll conjur up some recipes in a future blog, so hang fire on asking for a recipe.

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3 Responses to “Vanilla, Gorgeous Heady Vanilla”

  1. Clemens Fehr says:

    We are one of the two suppliers of cert. organic vanilla from the Congo and would be interested to hear whether the beans you offer derive form us or the other producer.

    I would also like to comment that we are fair trade certified. Considering the hype the recent article on Madagascar vanilla growing caused, do not try to talks you way out of a know problem but go fair trade yourself!

    Finally, I think the reference to “Blood River” is misleading. I know the book and it deals in NOW WAY with vanilla or the vanilla growing region of the DRC and. The book is also very generalising, leaving the impression that all Congo is anarchic and savage. This is not the case and it would be in everyones interest if you’d delete your reference to the book form your page.

    Clemens Fehr

  2. Axel says:

    We currently purchase the Congo beans from Authentic Products in France so I do not know if it is your vanilla. We do sell a lot of Fairtrade spices, including vanilla and vanilla extract, and were one of the first Fairtrade spice businesses in the world so have been committed to that since 2005. As such, we would be interested in looking at your vanilla.

    As for Blood River by Tim Butcher, I like the book and find that it shows the Congo as actually less anarchic than I had always thought, plus per the blog it was because of the book that I was interested in purchasing from the Congo and would never have contemplated buying from there otherwise.

  3. Clemens Fehr says:

    Sorry, only now I see your reply. We indeed supply Authentic, i.e. the vanilla must be from us. Pls get in touch with us.
    Clemens Fehr

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