No, it’s not a mummified green bean — it’s vanilla! One of the most common flavors in the kitchen is also one of the most heavenly when added to tea, proving that vanilla isn’t just for baking.

Remember cooking class where one of the standard tasks was measuring vanilla extract carefully before dumping it into that bowl of batter and stirring it in? That extract, made from alcohol and water percolated through chopped and cured vanilla pods, used to be the form vanilla took in most U.S. kitchens. Culinary times and tastes have changed. Thanks to the Internet and a plethora of cooking shows, people now know about a better way to “do vanilla.” Vanilla beans are increasingly popular and found in an array of foods, from ice cream to baked goods to coffees and, of course, teas. They are also alcohol-free, great for the teetotalers out there.

So, just what is vanilla? Thought you’d never ask.

Vanilla is part of the orchid family (those beautiful and exotic flowers made famous by fictional detective Nero Wolfe among others). There are several species, including Vanilla planifolia, which is the long and narrow thing we know as the vanilla bean. Actually, it’s a pod (like the one peas grow in) and is filled with tiny seeds (much, much, much smaller than peas). About 92% of vanilla is grown in Madagascar, Indonesia, and China, with the other 8% coming from Mexico, Turkey, and several other countries. Madagascar, Tahitian, and Mexican varieties are the top three for flavor.

Vanilla is a favorite flavoring in candies like Nestlé’s Quality Street assortment and Walnut Whip. You can also find it in most baked goods, from McVitie’s Custard Creams to Border’s Viennese Whirls. It’s small wonder that this flavoring made its way into tea.

One of the first vanilla teas I tried was a blend of black teas and vanilla beans that was mixed and sold at a little tea shop in a small town in California. A few years back, I was attracted by a wonderful vanilla fragrance and ended up purchasing a pound of Vanilla Honeybush from a store in Chicago (my tea adventures range far and wide). Since then, I have been seeking out great vanilla teas and herbals.

Some of my favorites:

  • Monk’s Blend — a fabulous blend of pomegranate, vanilla, and black tea. The combo fools your tastebuds into thinking you’re drinking caramel.
  • Golden Moon Madagascar Vanilla — uses top quality vanilla and rich black tea to create a taste that’s earthy, flowery, and reportedly akin to dark rum (their claim, since I am a teetotaler). Brightens up any tea time. So good that I bought a tinful and drink a cup of it regularly as my “tea moment” tea.
  • Harney & Sons Vanilla Comoro — a Ceylon tea with vanilla flavor. Keep it dry and tightly sealed to preserve the wonderful aroma.
  • Mighty Leaf Orange Dulce — combines fruity and flowery flavors with vanilla and black tea. One of those teas I drink straight, with nothing to come between my tastebuds and the tea.

Some other teas and herbals that sound intriguing and worth a try:

  • Bourbon Street Vanilla Rooibos — a taste reputed to live up to the jazzy reputation of the street in New Orleans its named after. Hot or chilled, this herbal delivers great taste with a mix of vanilla, calendula, and almond flakes with redbush (rooibos).
  • Black Tea with Vanilla — very basic, very flavorful. Try it with milk and sweetener to give it that almost vanilla pudding quality.
  • Tahitian Vanilla Chai — a taste reminiscent of a Dorothy Lamar movie, sarong and all. Black tea, vanilla bean, creamers, honey, and spices are great hot and chilled.
  • Harney & Sons Vanilla Grapefruit White Tea — not just fruity but vanilla-smooth taste. Balance out the tart of grapefruit with the rich sweetness of vanilla blended with delicate white tea.

Probably one of the best things I have noticed about vanilla in tea is how satisfying a cupful can be. Almost like a drinkable piece of cake or cookie. Time to try a new one. Enjoy!

Don’t forget to check out A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!

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