Vanilla is the second most expensive herb after saffron. It is a seed pod which looks like a fresh green bean hence the name given to the pod, which is misleading. If you split a pod you will see thousands of tiny seeds, which can be ground and used to flavour souffl├ęs, custards, and of course ice cream. The name comes from the Latin, vagina, meaning sheath or scabbard, and became vaina in Spanish, meaning the same thing. The pod resembles a sheath for a knife, or a sword’s scabbard- or that’s what Cortez thought.
It originated in Mexico and is the fruit of an orchid, which only flowers for a day. So to produce the pods, the orchids must be pollinated quickly. The Mexican and Madagascan varieties of vanilla are considered to be the best, although it is grown in the Pacific region now.
The Totonacs were probably the first to enjoy the taste of vanilla, but they were conquered by the Aztecs, and this is how we got vanilla in Europe. The Emperor, Montezuma gave Cortez, the famous Spanish conquistador a drink that was considered fit for royalty. This was xocolatl, which consisted of cocoa beans, honey and vanilla. Cortez brought it to Europe and Queen Elizabeth I’s apothecary declared that it was wonderful, so it quickly gained popularity.
Throughout history it has been used as an aphrodisiac and this was ‘proved’ in 1762 in a German study which found that a medication based on vanilla ‘cured’ more than 300 men of impotence.
It is believed to boost activity in the brain, increase muscle power and keep you awake. However it seems not to be used in modern medicine as a cure, only as a flavouring to make medicines more palatable. It was believed that vanilla cured fevers, but there is no proof of this.
It is usually used in desserts, and you can make your own vanilla sugar by storing a pod in a jar of sugar. Actually this is good for the vanilla pod as they should be stored in cool dark places. Some recipes call for vanilla extract or essence (cake recipes) for example, but if you are making a sauce that requires vanilla you can use a whole pod and when cooking is finished, remove it from the sauce wash it carefully, dry it thoroughly and replace it in your jar of sugar. There is no need to throw it away if it is still intact.

2 tbsps olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1½ inch piece ginger root, finely chopped
1 kilo carrots, roughly chopped
1 ltr chicken or vegetable stock (see recipe for chicken stock Bay Leaves)
2 inch stick of cinnamon
1 vanilla pod, whole
100 ml natural yoghurt

Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the onions for 5 mins with the ginger, then add the carrots and stir to coat them in the oil. Add the stock, cinnamon stick and vanilla pod. Stir to mix and bring to the boil. Cover the pan and simmer for 20 minutes.
Remove pan from the heat and cool a little.
Remove the vanilla pod, wash and dry it, then store it in the sugar jar again.
Pour the soup into a blender and blend until smooth. Return the soup to the pan and reheat, stir in the yoghurt and allow to simmer but not boil.
Pour into a serving dish and serve.
This has Taste and is a Treat.

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