Our vanilla in the image above has exploded in vanillin crystals and is incredibly rare. Less than 8% of our cured crop will ever develop these iridescent downy beauties. But as a small fanatical producer this is what we are best at: producing artisanal batches of the strongest vanilla in the world. Nowhere at retail will you see crystals like these exploded on vanilla beans in profusion.
The presence of crystals means the vanilla is exceptionally high in vanillin: the mark of vanilla strength. Vanillin is the compound responsible for the typical aroma we associate with vanilla and will only form when the beans are exceptionally ripe – harvested when they are turning yellow, or beginning to split at the tip; and when they are then cured with sensitivity to nurture the vanillin.
The rare white or iridescent vanillin crystals can look like an explosion of downy frost, fine hairs, or shards of fibreglass. Do not confuse them with mould which looks quite different and will often emerge on vanilla harvested prematurely, or which has been poorly conditioned during curing.
And that’s why our vanilla powder sometimes sparkles with tiny ‘diamonds’. And the secret to why our vanilla extract has no fortifying sugar in it, yet has a purer butterscotch sweetness of its own; and why it has a bright ochre red colour - imparted by the very ripe vanilla beans.
BBC Radio 4 The Food Programme: Sheila Dillon looks at the modern vanilla trade and talks to Ndali Vanilla in Uganda