So last night I happened to be at a friend’s aunt’s house dropping off some anonymous packages from Cuba (one of those situations which sounds a lot more exciting than it actually is). After a glass of wine the subject wandered towards food, mostly because I steered it there by trying to hint that ‘yes I really would like to stay for dinner thanks’, but apparently my hinting is totally crap. As it turns out, this Aunt had just gotten back from a trip to Madagascar (amidst coups and changes of presidency and everything) and had brought back a couple of very neat little bags of fresh vanilla pods, one of which she very kindly gave to me (it seems I have the kind of face people just want to give Vanilla to). There’s no real point to this little story other than to say I have fresh Madagascan vanilla and you don’t.
A quick side-note to this, the vanilla pods present me with a sort-of problem. I say ‘sort of’, because there are of course real problems out there in the world (you know… AIG, Darfur, tensions in the Middle-East, people still wearing Crocs), in comparison to which this less of a problem, and more a solo exhibition of artwork created entirely from things I found left behind in public toilets. The thing is, when someone gives you an ‘exotic’ or unusual ingredient, there’s immediately a scramble to find a recipe worthy of it. You see, as much as I’d like to say otherwise… I don’t automatically know what to do with okra, or strange Japanese bulb thingies, or seven pounds of dried Mexican shrimp-heads. I’m not saying that Vanilla is even vaguely in this category, it’s just that now I feel compelled to honour this gift with a suitably complicated or authentic something to do it justice. Which means hunting for a recipe, an opportunity to cook it and people to eat it. Which sounds easy, but isn’t, as I recently found out with half a kilogram of chestnuts a friend had kindly bought for me while on a visit to Johannesburg’s Chinatown market. You see, the time it took me to find the right recipe (A Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall soup from his excellent A River Cottage Year), some people who were eager to be experimented on (apparently my friends have no ceiling for Food That Could Go Either Way…) and an evening where everyone was free, turned out to be exactly the same amount of time it took for those chestnuts to go bad. Which, if I’d been less in awe of them wouldn’t have happened because I’d have just cooked the damn things.
I guess I’ll just go home and stick those vanilla pods in a jar of caster sugar and be done with it.