"We probably go through at least a pound a week of vanilla beans. The extract we'll go through at least a few liters," said Vanille owner Keli Fayard. "We use it in glazes, inside dough."
The sticky resin is scraped from inside of the beans, combined with butter, then mixed into a batter, for what will become one of Fayard's signature tarts. They also pour extract into cracked eggs, for a vanilla-scented pastry.
"It's a very simple ingredient, yet it has its own complexities and everybody likes it. It's a very familiar product," she said.
Like most of her colleagues -- including home cooks -- Fayard gets her vanilla from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, a company started by C.J. Nielsen more than 100 years ago. They started in Lincoln Park, moved to Lake Forest in the 70s and operate out of a sprawling warehouse in north suburban Waukegan. C.J.'s grandchildren now run things, still importing the rare fruit of orchid plants from exotic locales such as Madagascar, French Polynesia and Mexico.
"There's only certain areas of the world where vanilla can grow. That'll be about 10-20 degrees North and South of the equator, so that band around the world is where it's grown," said Matt Nielsen, co-owner of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas. "They're all very unique based on the environments they're grown in and also the curing techniques that are used to produce the whole vanilla beans."
When they arrive in Waukegan, they're inspected then fed through a special machine.
"It cuts them into about half-inch to one-inch pieces and also splits the beans lengthwise, so that we're opening up as much surface material as possible for our extraction process," Nielsen said.
They perform a cold extraction, running water and alcohol through the beans over the course of several weeks.
"It takes us 3-5 weeks to produce a single batch of vanilla, so it's a very slow, gentle process that fully extracts all the different flavor compounds that are found in the vanilla bean," Nielsen said.
Back at Vanille, Keli Fayard says without that key ingredient, her store would cease to exist.
"It just enhances the whole pastry altogether," she said.
Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Chicago Retailers:
Fox & Obel
Southport Grocery & Cafe
Sur La Table
2229 N. Clybourn Ave.