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More than half of all the world's vanilla beans end up in the United States. Half of those are used in the dairy industry, mainly in the form of vanilla extract, or essence. Massey's, as they were originally known, began making pure and imitation vanilla flavours a century ago and they continue to produce high quality extract using highly traditional methods. Outside the factory I spotted two cars, one bearing the registration 'VANILLA', and beside it another which read 'VANILA 2'. Inside, Craig Nielsen, a bear-like man with a deep voice and a bristling moustache welcomed me to the plant.
"I'll show you the plant," Craig said. "But our client list and the formula for vanilla extract are trade secrets."
The factory was a clean bright space with dozens of cardboard cartons of vanilla beans piled into one corner. Craig led me over to a metal machine nearby. "This is where it all starts. Basically this is a big version of a kitchen blender," he said. "We feed the beans in here at this open funnel-top and they get torn up into shredded pieces." When he turned the machine on, it made a noise like a coffee grinder. I watched as he threw a handful of beans into the open maw and seconds later saw them drop down onto a metal tray. The glistening pods, so carefully packed and sorted by Malagasy women on the other side of the world had been turned into dull brown shreds barely two inches long.
"We chop them up so as to expose as much of the surface area as possible before we extract the flavour."
Apart from the sound of the grinder, the factory was quiet with only a gentle humming sound as background noise. A few workers clad in white overalls and protective hair nets moved silently between a row of steel tanks lined up along the other side of the open space. The tanks, like upended baby bottles, were big enough to hold a thousand gallons of liquid and they had narrow metal pipes stretching from the funnel at the base up their flanks and back in a loop to the top. One of the pipes had a transparent section through which I could see a trickle of brown liquid, like strong cold tea. On a wall nearby there was a computerised control panel no bigger than a television screen. Digital displays revealed code numbers relating to individual extraction mixtures which varied according to the strength of extract being produced. "Don't write any of those numbers down," Craig admonished with another rattling giggle. "That's where we enter the code numbers for the amount of alcohol that goes into the tanks."
"Is that all there is to it?"
"Pretty much. You chop the beans, put them onto grilles that sit at the top of the tanks and percolate pure alcohol and water through them several times until you've got all the flavour out. We use a cold extraction method which means we take about three weeks to produce an extract, plenty of other companies do the same thing but they heat the alcohol to speed up the process."
"Is that bad?" I asked.
"I can't say it's bad," Craig replied cautiously. "But it changes the chemical reaction slightly and we think our method gives a purer extract. Remember some of the chemicals in vanilla are present in tiny quantities and it's possible that they could change or lose some of their characteristics under heat - or pressure."
"How much quicker could you extract the liquid if you used heat?"
"You could do in three to five days, instead of three to five weeks. But we sell a premium grade product, and our customers know they get reliable and consistent quality. We think that's due to doin' it slow."
Nielsen-Massey produce a wide range of different strengths and flavours of vanilla extract, and they also create specific and individual flavour blends according to customer needs. "Sometimes they'll send us ice cream or dry baked goods and ask us to match the flavour", Craig explained as he led me to a partitioned area of the factory where colour-coded hoses were fed through the wall into the bottling area. Craig knew from the colour on the hose what strength or variety of extract was being pumped. The hoses looked exactly like those on a petrol pump, and there was a man using them to fill large plastic barrels which would feed the assembly line nearby. Stacked on massive racks around the walls were rows of barrels and larger square plastic 'totes' holding as much as two hundred and seventy five gallons apiece. On a little track, like a miniature baggage carousel, there were hundreds of glass bottles jiggling along in a line like toy soldiers. A nozzle descended from a machine and gave each bottle a blast of air to clean them of any dust particles. Pfsst, Pfsst, Pfsst it went, and then an automated piston-filler came down and squirted the rich brown extract into their necks.
The labels on the assembly line gave the brown liquid its glamour. There was Madagascar Bourbon, Royal Bourbon and Organic Bourbon. Mexican and Tahitian Pure, and Sugarless Bourbon. There were blends of Bourbon-Mexican, Bourbon-Tahitian and Bourbon-Indonesian and all in a variety of strengths. There were jars for whole beans, jars for vanilla powder and jars for vanilla bean paste.
"Why so many different varieties?" I asked.
"Vanilla is an application driven product," said Craig. "It depends on what you want to do with it. Take a cookie, for example, it has a very low mass - so when you bake it the internal temperature rises very quickly. Madagascar Bourbon is the highest quality vanilla extract, but it doesn't respond well to quick high heat. Indonesian on the other hand has a harsher aroma as an extract but it's more heat-stable. And, as it heats up, the sharp Indonesian bite will mellow out in the cooking process."
"So what about ice-cream - presumably because it's cold you can use Bourbon?"
"Not necessarily," Craig pulled a face, realising how little I knew about the food industry. "Premium ice cream products have a high butter-fat content, maybe fourteen percent. The mixture is very creamy and the Bourbon notes compete with it and get masked. Again, if you mix Bourbon and Indonesian you get the harsher notes cutting through the butter-fat but as the taste swirls around your mouth you still get the Bourbon notes rounding out the flavour. That means you get an initial 'vanilla' impact but you can also still taste it at the end."
Excerpted from Vanilla by Tim Ecott Excerpted by permission.
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