Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Meatless Monday: Vanilla at its Best

Ain’t nothing like the real thing,” sang Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1968. That’s true for most things, especially vanilla, as every baker knows. Since 1888 the Baldwins of West Stockbridge, Massachusetts have been producing the real thing – some of the finest vanilla extract you can ever hope to taste.
According to the history found on the Charles H. Baldwin & Sons site, founder Charles Baldwin “peddled extracts all over the Northeast while his wife stayed home and raised the family, tended the farm and packed up the orders to ship to her husband for distribution.” Charles H. Baldwin & Sons moved to its present location, a former carriage house on the banks of the Williams River, in 1912.  Earl Baldwin Moffatt (fifth generation Baldwin) and his wife Jackie continue to make vanilla extract in a solid copper percolator nicknamed “the still,” using Bourbon vanilla beans from Madagascar and following Charles Baldwin’s advice, “Never tamper with the recipe or use inferior beans.”  The vanilla extract is aged in oak barrels over 100 years old, creating a dark, rich and flavorful product. Indeed, these oak barrels are the first thing you see when setting foot into the Baldwin establishment. The Baldwins have fans the world over, including Martha Stewart, who paid a visit to the store in 1999. 

The Baldwins also produce a variety of other extracts, Baldwin’s Table Syrup (developed by Charles’s son Earl in 1922), and Stavon Stove Polish. The main floor of Charles H. Baldwin & Sons is a retail store where Baldwin artifacts are on display, and the current Baldwin products are available for purchase, along with a full line of baking supplies, old fashioned candies, toys, greeting cards, books, games, gifts, goods made in the Berkshires, and items of local interest. There is even a very reasonably priced photo booth (with props) to create a memento of your visit.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Charles H. Baldwin & Sons on a number of occasions. [My sister and her family live just up the hill in Richmond.] Just this past weekend  I redeemed a Christmas gift certificate. Can you guess what I got? [Hint: It starts with a “v.”] I use this sublime liquid in everything from brownies to Claire’s Moroccan Sweet Potatoes. Nothing would taste the same without Baldwin’s vanilla.

The next time you are in the Berkshires, check out West Stockbridge. This picturesque town will provide a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the more well-known attractions in the area. Charles H. Baldwin & Sons is open daily year-round, there are a variety of shops and eateries, and parking is easy; you only have to park once to experience the entire downtown. 

You can also buy vanilla extract and a number of other items from the online store. It’s not quite the same as paying the Baldwins a visit, but at least you’ll end up with the “real thing.” There really is nothing like it.

I often blog on food, food issues, or topics related to growing things on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”


  1. Hi Elaine,
    When I took organic chemistry in college, I was told by the professor that the chemical compound called vanilla was just that, a particular chemical compound that could be manufactured anywhere. He said there was no need to purchase expensive extracts. Since then, I have used the cheapest vanilla I could find. Please enlighten me. Was my professor wrong?
    Karen Schneider

  2. Madagascar bourbon vanilla is the best tasting vanilla, in my opinion. A few years back is was quite scarce due to the rainforest crop's dwindling supply and therefore, quite expensive. It is not inexpensive now but it's sort of like the difference between Lipton tea and Fortnum & Mason's breakfast tea, or Maine's Back River Gin and a house brand, or a store brand coffee and Willoughby's. It's all in the taste!

  3. Those of you interested in the questions regarding real vanilla vs synthetic vanilla, or pricey vs less so, may enjoy this link about a taste test and a redo of the taste test some time later with interesting results: http://www.cooksillustrated.com/tastetests/overview.asp?docid=18889