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SANTA CRUZ - In the pantheon of culinary flavors, vanilla often gets overlooked. And then there’s the cliché “plain vanilla,” used to indicated something basic, simple, without frills.
Local chef David Jackman of Chocolate and “Vanilla Queen” Patricia Rain want to change this reputation, by showcasing the diversity of applications of vanilla.
“Pure vanilla is arguably the most underutilized flavor in the world, as most people use it only in cookies, cakes and ice cream,” Rain said.
Originally native to Mexico, vanilla is related to the orchid family and is now cultivated throughout the world.
Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez brought specimens back to Spain after conquering the Aztecs, who mostly used vanilla to flavor their bitter drinking chocolate, according to historians. There are three primary species of vanilla — including Tahitian vanilla and the most common variety, Bourbon vanilla or Madagascar vanilla, which is produced in Madagascar and neighboring islands in the southwestern Indian Ocean and in Indonesia. Madagascar produces about 80 percent of the world’s vanilla.
Rain is a frequent speaker on vanilla, giving chats to culinary students at Cabrillo College and other institutions both locally and around the world. She’s also authored books on the topic. After working extensively with Mexican vanilla producers to help them save and promote their industry, she earned the moniker “The Vanilla Queen,” and it’s stuck.
“Vanilla is an intoxicant,” said Rain. “The aroma is both calming and soothing, and is familiar to humans and many animals at a deep level. We hardwired to recognize it — as there is a component in mothers’ milk that smells like vanilla.”
Last year, Rain and Jackman got to speaking about their shared love of vanilla, and the fact that it’s so expensive and yet also endangered. The pair decided to put on a “vanilla festival,” a culinary tour de force showcasing the sweet and savory applications of this humble bean.
“We held the first event on December 1st last year and it sold out,” said Rain. “Everyone wanted us to do it again, and here we are with a new four-course menu and a new visual presentation for guests to enjoy.”
This week’s event will be held at the Food Lounge in downtown Santa Cruz. Attendees will have their taste buds treated to such dishes as a baked crown of artichoke accompanied by three cheeses and studded with vanilla.
As a flavor, vanilla plays many roles, explained Rain. It can be used to “lift” other flavors when used in savory foods, and it emphasizes the sweetness and fruitiness of desserts.
“What better subtle flavor is there then vanilla?” said Jackman. “Vanilla is super important to what we do here (at Chocolate). Vanilla is in many chocolate desserts, for instance — it’s all about contrast.”
For Thursday’s event, Jackman has planned a flourless, bittersweet chocolate cake that comes accompanied by vanilla gelato and oven-roasted apples.
“That’s contrast,” he explained. “(This trio) provides a multidimensional flavor palate.”
Jackman said he particularly loves the way vanilla can be used in savory dishes — everything from barbecue sauce to even gravy.
“It’s a great ingredient for gravy,” he said, adding that it goes very well with poultry and fish.
As a testament to this, Jackman is making a swordfish entrée for Friday’s event that includes vanilla-spiced heirloom tomatoes as well as a vanilla-orange roast duckling.
Friday’s event isn’t just about the food, however. Jackman and Rain hope that it will bring attention to this endangered and often-imitated crop. Currently, vanilla is the smallest industry of the three favorite “luxury crops”: chocolate, coffee and vanilla.
Shortages of vanilla beans in Madagascar, which is home to three-quarters of the world’s vanilla fields, have also pushed prices up, prompting many people to look for alternatives, including imitation vanillas. Weather, deforestation and changing levels of demand have all contributed to these shortages, and Rain and Jackman want to help people understand how important it is that this crop be protected and celebrated.
The event also will help raise money for Rain to speak in November at the World Orchid Conference in Ecuador, where she will extoll the praises of vanilla to a whole new audience of soon-to-be fans.
IF YOU GO
What: Second Annual Santa Cruz Vanilla Festival
When: Friday, Sept. 29 from 6-9 p.m.
Where: Food Lounge, 1001 Center Street, Santa Cruz
Cost: $55, includes a four-course dinner, silent auction, raffle, complimentary gift bag and a “virtual tour” of six vanilla farms around the world.
For tickets and more information: www.eventbrite.com
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