The term “French vanilla” technically describes a particular type of custard base for vanilla ice cream. This base is associated with a strong vanilla flavor and odor, a rich golden color, and small flecks of vanilla beans. As a result, companies sometimes market things like candles and body lotions as having this scent, capitalizing on the exoticism of all things French and the association of luxury. While this usage is incorrect, it is extremely common.
French cooks have been working with vanilla since the 16th century, when European explorers first began bringing the beans back with them from the New World, and in the 19th century, the French established vanilla plantations in several of their colonies. The result was a dedicated supply of beans that could, in turn, be used in an array of recipes, including the recipe for a vanilla custard.
This custard is made by cooking egg yolks, cream, and sugar together with crushed vanilla pods and vanilla flavoring. The result is a very rich dish with a strong yellow color, thanks to the egg yolks, and small black flecks from the crushed vanilla pods. It has an intense flavor and aroma, and a creamy, rich texture. Some of the best vanilla ice cream is made with a French vanilla base, and this custard can also be used in other custard desserts.
Any variety of vanilla can be used to make French vanilla, although many cooks like to work with cultivars produced in regions associated with France, such as Tahiti. High quality vanilla extracts and pods tend to be used because people think of it as a gourmet product, and they are often willing to pay a premium for the best available. When made with fresh eggs and cream and high quality vanilla, this custard can have an incredible flavor.
In addition to being used as a base for ice cream, the custard can be used to fill cakes and pastries, and it may be adapted for the purpose of making filled chocolates. Products not intended for consumption, such as candles, lotions, and room fresheners, are not technically “French vanilla,” since they are not made from custard. These products do often have flecks of vanilla and a strong vanilla aroma, which is why companies think that they can get away with labeling them with this term.