What to use when you can’t afford vanilla

In June, vanilla was more expensive than silver, according to the Financial Times. That was probably why I was able to share an article about the crazy behaviour of vanilla farmers in Madagascar at the beginning of October. So vanilla was on my mind when Charmaine McFarlane and I chatted about pastry for the most recent episode. We talked about how the price of vanilla has encouraged her to broaden the range of flavours she uses, and that reminded me of a discussion on Instagram that started with another baker, who calls herself ravenbreads.

Above a picture of diligently smashed apricot kernels, because “bitter almond is easy and versatile,” she asked what other flavours were worth further explorations. Suggestions came thick and fast.

  • Malted grains, blue fenugreek (Trigonella caerulea, closely related to ordinary fenugreek T. foenum-graecum but milder, widely used in Georgian cooking.)
  • Make your own; fair trade organic vanilla beans and an organic vodka on sale. “I am making 2250 mL and the whole thing is costing me 70 bucks. Plus once you make your own you’ll never go back it’s so much better.”
  • Cocktail bitters, especially Peychaud’s
  • Rose water. Orange water
  • Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius, which has a bit of the bready, scented rice aroma to it)
  • Douglas fir, spruce tips, salal, juniper or “the hot pine and vanilla scent of ponderosa”
  • Meadowsweet, saffron, chamomile, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
  • Peach leaves, currant leaves, fig leaves
  • Dried and pulverised citrus peel
  • Mahleb, the ground seeds of a cherry (Prunus mahaleb), widely used in the Middle East
  • Tonka beans (Dipteryx odorata)

It is, as many people who contributed to the list commented, an astonishingly diverse list, not so much of vanilla substitutes (tonka probably comes closest, though it can be dangerous) but of the sorts of things that can be used to add subtle and intriguing flavours and aroma to luscious desserts.

I’ve transcribed part of the discussion here both to show how creative pastry chefs and others can be and also because I just don’t trust Instagram to keep it available forever.

There may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for those who cannot stand the thought of being without vanilla. The latest market intelligence suggests that the crop is large, quality is high, and prices are heading down. Maybe. But that article also makes clear that there are so many factors at play in the vanilla value chain that anything could happen; to supply, to prices and to quality.

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