What vanilla should I buy?

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I sometimes get messages from people pointing me to bargain deals they find on vanilla beans online, but I’m happy to spend a bit more on the top-quality beans that my friend Patricia Rain sources, someone who’s dedicated herself to doing the right thing for the native farmers by working to ensure that the producers she works with get their fair-share of the profits. I suppose it would be different if I was going through a few kilos of vanilla beans a week, but for a couple of beans I split and use per month making Vanilla Ice Cream or adding to a batch of jam, paying an extra couple of dollars per year is money I consider very well-spent. Especially when I pull a slender bean from my stash, roll it around, and take a whiff of the tiny, fragrant seeds that cling to my fingers. The smell of pure vanilla is perhaps the most complex, captivating smell I can think of.

We’re often faced with lots of choices in the marketplace.


And when we are, lots of reasons come into play; economics, quality, price, convenience and politics. For most of us, we’re fortunate that we have the freedom to decide for ourselves what each of us wants to do. But often the things we buy do have a direct effect on local economies, and vanilla, being the most labor-intensive and highly-prized crop in the world, has led to a great deal of violence in the regions where it’s cultivated between growers and rustlers. Many less-fortunate people depend on getting a fair-price for their beans, which directly affects their livelihoods.

I’m happy to have a supplier that I respect and trust, and who’s dedicated her life and business to working to ensure her products are both of the highest quality and benefit the growers and producers as well. So each time I take that little brown bottle of vanilla from my kitchen cabinet and take a sniff before adding a few drops to whatever I’m baking, I’m gratified for the wonderful scent she’s given me and happy that a very small amount of something can perhaps have a very positive impact.

Visit Patricia Rain and read more about her vanilla and her relationship with the growers at Vanilla.com


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10 comments

  • Which one do you buy? At the shops there is only one to choose. I’m for fair trade, but sono un pò confusa.

  • I’m always up for great vanilla. About a month ago I bought the beans you show in your amazon.com store — they’re marvelous. Big, juicy and fragrant. Mmm.

  • Nice to hear a survivor story and 3 cheers for politically correct shopping whenever you can. I’m always somewhat envious when I read about someone like Patricia Rain who finds their “quest” in life and succeeds in following it.
    Best… PS: I just picked up the most beautiful strawberries from Spain at Monoprix (OK, I konw, but I live in the pedestrian center of Montpellier,and there are not that many choices when you need basic cleaning products.) I haven’t tasted them yet but they smell almost as good as they look…. maybe something with vanilla!

  • I’m thrilled for your friend. So lovely to read good news in the morning, David. (And vanilla? Yes.)

  • I am happy to hear that Patricia Rain is well. I am reading her book right now, published in 2004, and she mentions in the acknowledgments her cancer diagnosis.

    This is definitely the place to talk about a vanilla producer that I read about in Waitrose’s magazine. There is a woman named Lulu Sturdy (great name eh?) who has recently started retailing some of the first ever Fairtrade vanilla. It’s called Ndali Vanilla and it’s grown in Uganda without the use of pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertilizers. I know it’s available at Waitrose stores in the UK.

  • Thanks for a really interesting post, David. Nelle – I’ll look out for the fairtrade vanilla at Waitrose. I usually get mine from a stall in Broadway Market but have not seen any recently so had to use bottled vanilla extract instead.

  • Funny, just this morning Sara Moulton had an entire show about vanilla, in which she referenced The Vanilla Queen (see link here.)

    Sara made a hybrid dessert of rice pudding and creme brulee (vanilla, natch) which had me drooling alll over the eliptical machine. Did I mention I was at the gym while watching? Yeah, even when I’m working out, I’m thinking of my next dessert.

    I’m very happy to hear of Patricia’s recovery.

  • Judith: I am addicted to Patricia’s Mexican extract (not to be confused with the cheap, artificial, toxic stuff sold to tourists in Mexico), which has the sweet, creamy perfume like good vanilla gelato.

    Last trip to the states, I brought back 2 quarts!

  • Sending good thoughts. I read about the Vanilla Queen on Chef2Chef recently. Take care.
    PS—my students have chosen to make your Black-Bottom Cupcakes this coming week. Any helpful suggestions for their success?

  • Not only is vanilla a beautiful ingredient, but it does have the potential to be a fair trade item. I applaud you on making the choice to support a good company!