Monday, March 14, 2005

Tonka bean ice cream, pt. 2

Just what are Tonka beans, you ask?

Well, they're native to the New World, but they come primarily from Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, and Venezuela, with most of those in circulation coming from the forests of Venezuela. Their value comes from the fact that they contain coumarin, the compound that gives them they're distinctive fragrance. Michelle describes this aroma as being somewhere between tarragon, vanilla, and hay. Alan Davidson also describes the presence of vanilla and hay. I don't really smell the tarragon, and I'm not sure I've spent enough time in the country to really sense the hay. All I know is that both of us have been experiencing this really powerful Proustian/un-Proustian effect every time we taste this ice cream. We both have been overwhelmed by some kind of past childhood experience, but these experiences have remained vague at best, and neither of us has been able to identify exactly where we used to taste this flavor. We both have a sense that it was in some candy we liked as kids, but that's as far as we've gotten. Anyway, this aroma was in high demand up until World War II, and it was used in everything from liqueurs, to candies, to chocolates. Everything changed in 1954 when the U.S. government restricted its use to perfume (when you're looking for accents of tarragon, hay, and vanilla prior to a big night out, I guess). In other countries, the real thing has been replaced by an artificial version (sounds BLADE RUNNER-esque, doesn't it?), as well as by the use of vanilla.

As mentioned below, you can find real Tonka beans at Olives & Épices. If you can tell us where we've had that taste before, we'll be forever indebted.


[Thank you to Alan Davidson for his assistance.]


Anonymous said...

Anthony & Michelle,

That special effect that you have been experiencing from the ice cream might be simply because, apparently Tonka bean that fragrant seed has been used also as an imitation vanilla!

William Watson said...

More specifically, it seems that tonka bean extract is used in "Mexican Vanilla" as it's less expensive and has a similar taste. I found an article that says WHY the US prohibits such use of tonka bean extract:

Evidently, tonka bean extract is an anticoagulant, so Mexican vanilla could cause health problems for some people.

This explains why I could buy large bottles of "vanilla extract" in very cheaply in Guadalajara...

Perhaps you recall having had some "Mexican vanilla" candies?

michelle said...

Thanks for all of your research. I have had Mexican vanilla and found it to be more frangrant than the North American version. As long as it's not a hallucinogen, I think we're okay. I may be thinking of this weird candy I had when I was a kid: a long, flat Neopolitan ice cream-flavoured confection which was kind of chewy... The fact that a "What kind of ice cream are you?" quiz just told me I'm Neopolitan seems to confirm this suspicion.

michelle said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
aj kinik said...

Thank you to Hermine for finally solving the mystery for us. Have you ever had those little Chinese candies called "White Rabbit"? Well, THAT's what Tonka Bean Ice Cream tastes like. White Rabbits are my second favorite Chinatown candies (after those Indonesian Ting Ting Jahe ginger chews)--maybe that's why I like this flavor so much.

Anonymous said...

Tonka contains coumarin which will inhibit the SIRT1 antiaging gene if you are taking resveratro to promote the gene. SIRT1 activity natrually reduces as we age. Resveratrol stimulate SIRT1 activity. I read one research abstract indicating that coumarin did not inhibit SIRT1 unless combined with resveratrol.

Anonymous said...

Tonka bean is a delicious ingredient used in poshed restaurants in ice creams and it is gorgeous wish i could get hold of it so that i can make it :)