Foreword by Stan Lerner: written as only the great Alec Silverman can the story of Mad Vanilla to follow is a sweet treat to end the day. I am also familiar with this precious substance and find it a great source of pride that it can only be found here in downtown Los Angeles.
Great chefs are always seeking the finest ingredients, winemakers the best fruit and perfumers the purest expression of each aroma in fragrances. What they have in common is reliance on highly developed olfactory sense. Practitioners of the three above named professions would be thrilled to discover what Dan Norton shared with me last Monday; but it is pastry chefs – also called pâtissiers – who might have to change their underwear after tasting this product. He has created what may be the greatest vanilla extract ever produced in the U.S.
This unsweetened precious flavoring agent has the most sublime and potent vanilla flavor and aroma imaginable. It was made with one of the world’s most sought after vanilla beans, the Madagascar Black Bourbon species. Because it has been aged for six years, (compared to the twenty-day average of commercially available vanilla extracts), it has developed what wine experts refer to as bouquet: a complex combination of fragrances. Although it has never touched wood, it has notes of cedar as well as plum, dried fig, white pepper and woodsmoke. Just like wine grapes, vanilla beans develop character specific to their variety and the place they are cultivated. These elongated seed pods are the fruit of the vanilla orchid. They require three years to develop into fruit bearers. After harvest they must be sun-dried for up to six months during which time they also ferment and develop their distinctive flavor and aroma. There are about 110 different species and they have global proliferation in the tropical and subtropical regions of four continents and many islands.
Using a 35% higher than normal concentration of vanilla beans he infused super-premium vodka , steeping this brew for six years. In the early 2000’s the entire crop of this prized orchid was destroyed by cyclones, the most devastating of which was named Huddah. These catastrophic storms plunged the island-nation’s economy into desperation as their two most important export crops, vanilla and coffee, were lost. This drove the price of Mr. Norton’s beans to over $240 a pound when they were last seen on the market, five years ago. Although he would like to make more extract he can’t get these vanilla beans anymore. The nurseries have rebounded but seed pods of the size and quality of the 2003 crop have not yet been produced. Thankfully, unlike many other flora and fauna of Madagascar, they haven’t become recently extinct. (Over twenty percent of the world’s plant and animal species are exclusive to the African island, which is slightly larger than the country of France, from which it became independent in 1960. Indeed, for this biodiversity some scientists refer to it as the “eighth continent”.)
Necessity being the mother of invention, and Mr. Norton being the type of man who is driven to pursue the highest degree of excellence, there simply wasn’t a good enough vanilla extract to put into his family’s secret recipe Irish Pound Cake. This clandestine information is no joke; it’s been in the family for over 250 years. It’s not for sale and it would require torture to get it out of him. If the expense he has gone to seems extravagant bear in mind that pound cake was named after the British Pound and one pound 250 years ago is the equivalent of hundreds of dollars today.
Dan Norton’s family hails from Charlestown in County Mayo, Ireland. He has a classic Celtic appearance with his dense, closely-cropped salt and pepper hair; thick, black eyebrows over intense blue eyes; thin nose; and strong chin. He is a senior network engineer for Technicolor in digital content delivery and a resident of downtown. A very interesting man to talk to, he has an encyclopedic command of general knowledge. I knew I was going to be in for something great when he told me he would bring in a sample of this handcrafted vanilla essence.
He calls it Mad Vanilla an excellent double entendre for its Madagascar source and its “mad” quality. Of course, double entendres usually have a risqué connotation so consider: the word vanilla has the same Latin root as the word vagina, meaning sheath.
If you have friends who are pastry chefs, you should let them know about this product. As anyone who makes ice cream or gelato knows there are national competitions for the best vanilla ice cream. It is considered the benchmark flavor of any given brand. If you get Mad Vanilla, you can now make the best at home or custard or crème brulée or vanilla candy such as caramel, or any cake or pastry or icing – even Irish Pound Cake. You’ll need your own recipe though.
Postscript: Mr. Norton will soon be providing Downtownster’s writers with samples of the Norton Family Irish Pound Cake and a yet-to-be-named chiplote chile salsa cruda. We will be reviewing them in this blog. These products should be available in the not too distant future.
Dan Norton can be reached at: deveyn(at)gmail.com