Orient-Express Magazine
Volume 21 No. 2 2004

It's a bean feast


Tonka beans, shown here larger than life-size, are used mainly in desserts and sweet dishes, though they can also add flavour to a savoury sauce.

Every once in a blue moon the palate is tantalised afresh by an exotic taste sensation. My taste buds certainly did the samba when first encountered the tonka bean in the kitchens of Harrods. Sometimes something arrives on the culinary scene that is truly unique: this idiosyncratic, strange and slightly daring capsule of concentrated flavour is just one such item.

To say that the tonka bean awakens associations of vanilla, cinnamon and almonds is true but does not do justice to the hypnotic taste and aroma of this quirky legume. Every so often it is used in perfume, such as Van Cleef & Arpels’ fragrance, Birman, which I like so much that! Bought my wife a bottle, only to discover later that the warm sensuous notes at its heart were tonka through and through.

The tonka bean is a dark brown, deeply wrinkled oblong pod about the size of a small thumb and grows on tall trees in the Orinoco region-mainly Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. Obscure and exclusive, few cookbooks make reference to it, and it is not even listed in the seminal Larousse Gastronomique. This does not imply that tonka does not have a wide application in gastronomic creations. I recently stumbled 5 across a recipe for Italian-style tomato sauce flavoured with Tonka bean: rusticity with an aristocratic twist. And Britain’s three-star Michelin chef Heston Blumenthal, man not averse to experimenting, is the culinary architect of a “tonka beanvelouté”.

To my mind, the tonka bean comes into its own in desserts. Bill McCarrick, the Chef de Patisserie at Harrods, is a fan and waxes lyrical: I ‘It is wonderfully rich and complex,” he says. ‘Cinnamon, aniseed, cardamom, vanilla, and coffee come through in a relay rather than one particular taste.

But its many spicy tones never overpower the palate.” For me, the tonka bean and dairy produce are a marriage made in heaven. Crème catalan au tonka, tonka bean cheesecake, tonka bean crème anglais, tonka bean ice cream and crème brûlée are all memo. Table creations. Thick custardy comfort puddings are given just that little fillip when infused with tonka magic.

Chef Bill’s favourite is a culinary poem composed with the ultimate combination of flavours: chocolate and tonka. Such a master recipe is meant for sharing and so, after some arm-twisting, I was able to extract the secrets of baked tonka bean chocolate mousse (see recipe, with Chef Bill, below).

Like all superstars, tonka is somewhat controversial. Its coumarin content has led to it being banned from the US since 1940. A fermented substance with a vanilla-like aroma, coumarin is thought to have toxic, maybe even carcinogenic properties, especially as an oil, and it may act as an anticoagulant. However, other experts insist that they are not harmful when used whole as a flavouring is my firm conviction that within the next few years, the tonka bean will become the “il spice. Chef Bill agrees:

“It will soon be the must-have dessert ingredient in all fine kitchens,’ he says. In addition to imparting a sense of well-being and exoticism, the bean is also said to be emotionally balancing, to have the power to lighten one’s mood and the ultimate accolade-it is claimed to be an aphrodisiac GV

By the Truffleman, a member of Les Amis Gourmets and the British Academy of Gastronomes, who works for a major luxury goods company

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