Behind the French Menu gives a tasty background to French cuisine, French dishes, how they are made and how they should be served. Where there is a story behind a dish's creation and that story may aid the diner's enjoyment then that will also be included. Bon appétit!
Vanilla flavor is the most pervasive and appreciated flavor in the world. In France vanilla is behind so many French dishes that it is easy to understand why France has the highest per capita usage of real vanilla in the world. Apart from pastries, desserts and ice cream vanilla will be flavoring poultry, meat, and fish dishes. Outside France, some 90% of the vanilla flavor in pastries, ice-cream and elsewhere comes from synthetic chemically produced vanilla. (Read the label when you buy).
Columbus did not bring Vanilla back from the New World in 1492, (Columbus brought back chocolate, allspice and chili peppers in 1492 ). Spain had to wait nearly 40 years until the Conquistador Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico in 1521 and returned to Spain in 1528 bearing treasure along with many fruits and herbs, including vanilla. The Spanish were already sweetening their chocolate drinks with honey or the more expensive imported sugar from cane. When vanilla was added to the chocolate as the Aztecs did the Spanish drinkers were hooked.
France creates the first chocolate and vanilla cakes.
The first vanilla flavored pastries came as an upgrade to the chocolate cakes “tortas” first created in the Italian port city of Livorno by Jews who had been expelled from Portugal in 1496. The new Italians had passed their recipes for chocolate cakes to their families who lived in Bayonne, France, the capital of the Pays Basque. When vanilla made its way from Spain to France, sometime after 1528, it was these vanilla and chocolate cakes that heralded the first arrival of vanilla in French cuisine.
England creates the first sweets, candies with vanilla,
Hugh Morgan of England (1530-1613) was Queen Elizabeth I’s apothecary. He created vanilla flavored sweetmeats (candied fruits, nuts and other tasty sweets with sugar or honey and flavored with vanilla), in 1601. At that time any vanilla reaching England came from English Pirates who attacked Spanish treasure ships returning home from the New World. English pirates were licensed by Queen Elisabeth I. (The most famous pirate, Sir Francis Drake died in 1596).
During this period the Spanish and the English were at war, and when they were not at war, then the French and the English were at war. The wars were fought over who ruled where, over pirates, and over religion. Wars did not make the trade in vanilla and the other new herbs and spices easy.
Despite the work of Hugh Morgan, it would take another 70 years until a mainstream French chef broke the vanilla code; that was the chef and banqueter François Vatel (1631 – 1671). Vatel developed Chantilly Cream. Chantilly cream was made with whipped cream and vanilla that he named after the Château de Chantilly in the department of Oise (now in the new super region of Hauts de France) just 55km (34 miles) from Paris. The Château de Chantilly was the home of Vatel’s employer the Prince de Condé, and now vanilla had arrived in mainstream French cuisine. (François Vatel had probably developed Chantilly cream at the home of his previous employer Vicomte Nicolas Fouquet at his Chateau le Vaux-le-Vicomte, and then released it again under its new name Chantilly).
Vanilla on French menus:
3 Boules au Choix Café, Chocolat, Vanille, Citron Vert, et Fraise – 3 balls (scoops) of ice cream chosen from coffee, chocolate, vanilla, lime, and strawberry.
Abricots Rotis Vanillé, Sorbet Mandarine – Apricots roasted with vanilla and served with mandarin sorbet. Mandarins and clementines are the same citrus fruit; and like all other citrus fruits, originated in China or its immediate area, hence the name mandarin. Despite the fruit’s historical origins, the mandarin or clementine is a hybrid that was developed at an orphanage in Algeria. The accepted story has a local monk, Clement Rodier (1829-1904) as the clementine’s creator. Clement either accidentally discovered or was personally responsible for crossing a regular orange that produced the new fruit. Voila, from Clement Rodier in Algeria we have clementines. (The very similar tangerine comes from Tangiers, Morocco).
Blanquette de Veau à la Vanille – A veal stew flavored with vanilla. Blanquettes are traditional stews made with white meats such as veal, pork, rabbit or lamb and occasionally fish. The recipes for blanquettes include mushrooms and a cream sauce, and most of the recipes will include white wine.
Le Gâteau Forêt Noire Aux Framboises Marinées, Avec Crème À La Vanille – A Black Forest cake made with raspberries marinated in an alcoholic eau de vie and prepared with a vanilla flavored cream. This is a layered chocolate cake made with a few simple ingredients: sour cherries, chocolate, buttercream, kirsch, vanilla and whipped cream, all encased in chocolate shavings and topped with more cherries and cream. Here the cherries have been replaced by raspberries. N.B. When in the Black Forest in Germany you will have to ask for a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte or they may not know what you are talking about.
Dame Blanche – The white lady, is a popular ice-cream dessert made with vanilla ice-cream and cream, and served with melting chocolate.
Noix de St Jacques de Bretagne, Purée de PanaisBio Local à la Vanille et Fondue de Poireaux – The meat of king scallops caught off the coast of Brittany served with a puree of locally grown organicparsnips flavored with vanilla accompanied by stewed leeks. (Fondue is not only a dipping dish made with cheese or meat. Fondue can also mean vegetables that have been cooked to a pulp; the word fondue, like fondant, comes from the word fondre and indicates, warming, mixing and melting).
Terrine de Foie Gras à la Vanille – A terrine of pate of fattened duck liver flavored with vanilla. France has strong laws on what may be called foie gras, and a pate de foie gras must have at least 50% liver, and that will be reflected in the price.
Growing vanilla outside Central and South America
The Spanish wanted to grow vanilla closer to home, but the three countries: Spain, France, and England were always at war or sparring over their Caribbean and Indian Ocean colonies. They all wanted to compete with the Dutch who ruled the Spice Islands. Despite their efforts and their successes in growing spices none, including others like Danish and the Dutch, succeeded in cultivating vanilla. For 350 years the price of vanilla was second only to saffron.
The vanilla vines that grew in Mexico were pollinated naturally; however, the bees and their friends in the Caribbean islands would not touch the transplanted vines that were brought from Mexico. France owned, in the Indian Ocean, the island of Madagascar, now an independent country and the Island of Bourbon, now France’s overseas island region of Réunion and here the French wanted to grow vanilla. (Bourbon was the family name of the King of France. His family name was given to the island of Bourbon and after the French revolution changed to Réunion).
Planting vanilla in any of the English, French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean was a failure until a twelve-year-old slave Edmond Albius (1829 –1880) succeeded in pollinating vanilla by hand; on the Île de la Réunion. It is an expensive solution, but it works; vanilla flowers do not open at the same time and when a flower does open it is ready for pollination for little more than one day. The farmers must go back and forth every day looking for new flowers that have opened.
The world’s supply of vanilla.
In 2017 Indonesia and Madagascar together produced 70% of the world’s supply of vanilla followed by Papua New Guinea, Mexico, and China. The island of Réunion still produces vanilla, but it is off the list of the ten most important producers.
The most important variety of vanilla is the type called Bourbon or Madagascar-Bourbon from Réunion and Madagascar. According to the mavens, it is characterized by a more concentrated, balanced and somewhat dark flavor. The cheaper Mexican vanilla is said to be softer with a fresh aroma and is the least expensive. If a menu listing offers Bourbon vanilla that is nice to know, but it is also the most common.
The most highly rated vanilla in the world comes from around the town of Sambava in the North of Madagascar. I wonder how many chefs can tell the difference between the two top vanillas types in a blind tasting of a cooked product?
How vanilla got its name
The Aztec name for vanilla was tlilxochilt, and for some reason, the Spanish could not pronounce it. They took a look at the herb and chose a word related to the appearance of a vanilla pod, a sheath. A sword’s sheath in Spanish is a vaina de espada, and so tlilxochilt became vainilla in Spanish. The French called the Spanish vainilla, vanille and the English called it vanilla.
Vanilla is, by the way, one of the two edible members of the orchid family.
Searching for the meaning of words, names or phrases
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Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu.
Copyright 2010, 2018.
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman