Let's Eat

Vanilla’s golden age

Had it not been for the Jews of Jamaica, we might not have vanilla ice-cream or custard. Ruth Joseph on the story of a glorious spice


Think of custard. To many, it symbolises perfect comfort food, fragrant with childhood memories. Yet the history of the vanilla pod is far from comfortable. Vanilla began to surface in Europe at a time when Jews and Jewish merchants were being persecuted. But it was Jews who brought it to our shores.

The story begins in 1494, when a Marrano called Luis de Torres accompanied Christopher Columbus as an interpreter on his exploration of Jamaica, then a Spanish colony. Numerous Portuguese Jews, called Conversos, followed, seeking religious freedom. In the beginning, Jews were allowed to worship, even granted citizenship by the reigning King Charles. They established communities with synagogues and schools, and traded sugar.

However, local residents resented them and in 1671 petitioned the British, who had taken over the island, to banish them. This did not happen, but Jews were taxed heavily and persecuted. By 1700 they were second-class citizens. But the local Mexican/Indian population liked them, often acting as mediators or interpreters. Close friendships developed and in time the Mexican/ Indians revealed the secret processes of extracting vanilla from the bean.

Penalties and laws against the Jews increased — they could not employ more than two slaves in Jamaica. In desperation, seeking less labour-intensive trades, they abandoned sugar production and turned to vanilla processing — selling it abroad to the Dutch Jews. Thus vanilla reached Europe. Eventually the vanilla orchid was distributed to other parts of the world, including Madagascar, where it is said that the best vanilla pods now grow.

The secret processes were numerous. First the pod had to be pollinated by a specific black bee — which meant that when the plant was exported, it produced flowers, but without the bee the flowers never matured into pods. Later, vines were hand-pollinated to ensure success. Then the pods had to be hand-picked green before ripening took place.

Four special processes followed to ensure the vanilla pod would ripen and release its glorious flavour. First “killing”, where the pods were dipped in boiling water for a few seconds to stop further growth; and then “sweating”, where the beans were wrapped in cloth, thus raising their temperature and allowing them to develop the vanilla aromas and characteristics. Then the pods were dried in the sun to prevent rotting and, finally, stored in closed boxes to develop their fragrance.

No wonder they are so expensive. This glorious ingredient is used in aromatherapy and perfume manufacture. In the past, it was used as an aphrodisiac and an antidote to fevers.

There has even been a vanilla scented patch which, when stuck on the back of the hand, was said to help curb the craving for chocolate and other sweet foods and thus help the wearer to lose weight.

Vanilla compliments almost every dessert. Combine the seeds with the milk for a rice or bread and butter pudding, or mix with cream or soured cream for a fragrant, naughty topping over pies and tarts.
And, let’s face it, an apple pie dusted with a golden sugar crust or a homemade blackberry crumble with the dark juices oozing out just doesn’t taste the same without custard.

Or try my cheat’s crème brûlée — almost as good as the real thing and 10 times easier to make.



I punnet raspberries
1 punnet blueberries
450ml set Greek yoghurt
Grated rind of orange or lemon
120g caster sugar
1 tub 15 fl oz vanilla custard


● Fill a 1 litre, 3½ pint dish with the raspberries and blueberries.
● Combine a 450ml, 15 fl oz tub of quality vanilla custard with 450 ml set Greek yoghurt and the orange/lemon rind.
● Pour the creamy mixture over fruit. Top with the sugar and place under the grill or use blow-torch until sugar is golden brown and bubbling.
● Serve chilled.

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