madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


home-made vanilla extract

my first ever jar of home-made vanilla extract

There’s a spice trail to my house. It’s followed by friends who show up at my door with exotic ingredients.

You see, I live in rural Umbria. I can have some of the best olive oil in the world, some of the best prosciutto. I can have truffles and wild asparagus. Pecorino of all sorts and flavors. Fantastic.

However, I can’t buy lemon grass or kaffir lime, nor a decent garam masala. Nor pak choi, nor preserved lemons. I can go on, but the list is too long. Umbrians are very traditional people and believe to have the best food in the world. As a consequence they don’t need to import any of this foreign craziness.

I cant’ blame them, even though I love variety, but vanilla? I’ve returned to Italy 11 years ago and I’m still not able to buy good quality vanilla extract here in Umbria. Italian sweets are generally flavored with lemon zest or with the vile artificial vanillin.

Those of you who have been at my cooking classes know of my vanilla problem.

Then – a couple of months ago – I was observing two beautiful organic vanilla beans which my lovely friend Sandra  had carried all the way from Canada. Should I have a blast and make some gelato? Mmmm, no….. I thought them too precious to waste for a single occasion.

Instead I took the scissors and snipped them into 1 cm (1/2 inch) pieces, placed them into a jam jar and poured 1/2 cup of brandy in it.

I closed the jar, placed it inside a cupboard and forgot about it until yesterday. No gimmicks, no shaking, no scraping off the seeds, no expensive liqueur, just my regular cooking brandy.

It turns out this is the best vanilla extract I ever had. Full bodied, dark amber almost chocolatey in color and a flavor bomb. I’ll have to use it in drops.

In addition and to my deep satisfaction it’s free of the artificial additives, sweeteners and it’s pesticide free as I have used organic beans. And quite inexpensive (we have a crisis don’t we?)

Please go out now and find yourself some vanilla beans. If you like me live in the wilderness you might need to use a good source of specialty foods online.

You only need to forget that jar for a couple of months, it does not get any easier.

A vanilla plantation in a “shader” (ombrière) on Réunion Island (photo from Wikimedia)


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