The vanilla revolution in West Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 17:00 04 October 2016
Former chef Graham Bruce has created the recipe for success with a single ingredient.
It all began with his mum’s meringue. One bite of her light, cloud-like creations was all it took for Graham Bruce to discover the love of his culinary life – vanilla.
His parents ran what would now be described as a gastro-pub in the Sixties, inspiring a deep appreciation of food in their son.
‘It was my mum who first got me hooked on cooking; she was an amazing pastry chef,’ said Graham. ‘My lifelong love of vanilla started with a bite of one of her heavenly meringues and a slurp of her to-die-for custard.’
He went on to work as a chef in pubs and restaurants across his native Kent, realising early on in his successful 40-year career that his favourite dishes were always sweet and always contained at least a drop or two of vanilla.
‘The Chanel No.5 of the spice world – bourbon vanilla – inspired all my signature dishes,’ he said. ‘Panna cotta; crème brûlée, sticky toffee pudding, crème anglaise and handmade ‘vanillicious’ ice cream.’
Throughout his career, however, he found it hard to source quality vanilla products in the UK. Life would have been so much easier if only someone had imported premium bourbon beans directly from Madagascan growers for the home market.
But at least someone is doing that now. And that someone is… Graham.
He founded vanillaetc in 2011, shipping top grade beans to a small storage-cum-office unit in the grounds of a farm high above Steeton in West Yorkshire. It’s a modest looking building – a simple conversion of an agricultural outbuilding – but boasts one of the best views in the county, sweeping across the Aire Valley towards Skipton and the southern boundary of the Dales national park.
But Graham has got little time to enjoy the beauty of the county he moved to when he ‘retired’ ten years ago because he’s now busy checking sackloads of bourbon beans before either sending them off whole to buyers (both home retail and large-scale manufacturers) or for processing into liquid extract and powder.
‘Madagascan vanilla is very different from vanilla grown in other regions,’ he said. ‘For me, it’s the best there is and the flavour profile is out of this world.’
Madagascan beans are creamy and sweet with heavily aromatic overtones of vanillin (the organic compound that’s the primary component of pure vanilla).
‘When selecting beans, always choose plump ones with a thin skin to get the most seeds possible,’ Graham advised, while opening a bag of gourmet grade pods with a rich, fruity aroma (like a vanilla-heavy Christmas pudding). ‘You can test them by gently squeezing the beans between your fingers. Pods should be dark brown – almost black – and pliable enough to wrap around your finger without breaking.’
Quality vanilla is not an easy crop to grow as it’s hand-pollinated and highly susceptible to changes in the weather. This inevitably leads to a volatile market in which prices can sky-rocket – a market not made any less precarious by the malign influence of the Madagascan mafia and the financial shenanigans of an ill-managed government.
‘Prices are currently rising and are set to be astronomical as there were huge problems with the last harvest,’ said Graham. ‘The growers tend to get a bad crop every ten years or so.
‘I’m currently trying to find other quality growers, but so is everyone else in the industry and I can’t compete with big buyers striking deals to buy beans while they’re still green. Demand is already far outstripping supply and this practice means there’s even less to go round.’
Madagascar currently produces around 2,000 tonnes of vanilla a year. The pods are harvested in July, are ‘killed’ by being briefly boiled to stop any vegetative growth and are then drained and wrapped in huge blankets while still warm so they can begin the long process of curing while being alternately sweated in wooden boxes and dried in the natural heat of the sun.
By the time November rolls around, the pods are plump, glossy and heavily aromatic; perfect for exportation around the world.
‘If I’m sourcing vanilla for the home consumer, I tend to buy 500 kilos at a time,’ said Graham. ‘If I’m buying for manufacturers, it’s more likely to be a tonne or two.’
He makes it sound easy, but the unpredictability of the Madagascan market means price fluctuations are inevitable. And we’re not talking a few cents.
‘Since I’ve been doing this, there’s been a 3,000 per cent price rise,’ he said. ‘And in a very bad year, which this one’s shaping up to be, we can be talking $500 a kilo.’
But even when prices are high, customers are still willing to pay for premium vanilla.
‘Demand always far outstrips supply,’ said Graham, ‘and I think it always will. There are chemical essences out there, of course, but they’re just not the same. They don’t capture the real heart of vanilla.
‘I can’t see vanilla ever going out of fashion; it’s so distinctive and recognisable whether it’s in food, beer or a candle. I’ve been a fan all my life and, even though I work with it every day, I still can’t get enough of it. You can’t beat the real thing.’
What is real vanilla?
:: Vanilla beans are the fruit from a variety of orchid known as Planifolia. The orchid family is the largest group of flowering plants in the world yet vanilla is the only edible fruit among them.
:: The Totonac people were the first to cultivate vanilla on the east coast of Mexico in what is now the state of Veracruz.
:: Vanilla is classed as a spice in culinary terms.
:: The word vanilla comes from the Spanish word ‘vaina’ and translates simply as ‘little pod’.
:: Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (saffron tops the list).
:: Bourbon vanilla is the most highly prized modern crop. It’s produced in Madagascar, the Comoros and Réunion, formerly the Île Bourbon
:: The best quality vanilla beans, regardless of where they come from, are dark-skinned, soft and pliable with a rich aroma. Avoid any that have little scent and are smoky, brittle and dry.
:: Beans can be kept for up to two years in an airtight container stored in a cool, dark place. Don’t put them in the fridge though as this can cause them to harden and crystalize.
:: The US is currently the biggest importer of vanilla, followed by France.