Fact: real vanilla has become very expensive. The price has risen tenfold in a short period of time. How come, exactly? Mainly because of poor harvests in Madagascar, the ultimate vanilla island. As a result, more and more people turn to alternatives, even synthetic flavourings. What exactly is vanilla, where does it come from and: are there any good alternatives? We take a look.

What is vanilla?

Vanilla is the pod that comes from the climbing orchid Vanilla Planifolia, Tahitensis or Pompona. These three varieties are found in the wide region around the equator: Mexico, Madagascar, Hong Kong, Indonesia and New Caledonia.

Here is an overview of the main vanilla regions:

Bourbon vanilla, named after its origin

The most well-known vanilla is perhaps Bourbon vanilla. This vanilla pod was named after its place of origin: Bourbon Island, the name of Réunion Island until 1848. This island lies to the east of Madagascar and to the west of Mauritius. The name is often used for vanilla with a high-quality origin.

Debic quality

This is the vanilla that Debic uses for its Crème Brûlée and Crème Anglaise: the natural flavouring of Bourbon vanilla and vanilla seeds which are dried and sieved once the vanilla extract has been produced. They cause the typical black specks in real vanilla. Debic Tiramisù is also flavoured with natural vanilla.

How do you recognise good-quality vanilla?

The use of good-quality, pure vanilla creates the right taste. But how do you recognise it? Always check the packaging for the country of origin, vanilla experts maintain.

  • The name Bourbon vanilla may only be used for vanilla pods that belong to the Panifolia species and come from Réunion Island, Madagascar and the Comoro Islands.
  • Another species is Tahiti vanilla (or Tahitensis), which is cultivated in French Polynesia.

Other tips from experts:

  • Select non-brittle, slightly moist, fleshy, almost greasy, leathery, shiny pods.
  • Vanilla pods that are too big or too small indicate a less well controlled production method. Count on around 17-20 cm for a dependable vanilla pod.
  • Can you see small glints or crystals on the vanilla pod? That means that the vanillin on the surface has crystallised. A sign of high quality, certainly not to be confused with mould.

How do you store your vanilla?

  • It is best to store vanilla pods in a tin in a cool, dry place, away from the light.
  • Allow the vanilla pods to breathe by exposing them to the air for a few minutes on a regular basis.
  • Want to keep larger quantities for longer? Then put them in a glass jar or tube with a cork stopper.
  • Don't keep vanilla pods in the refrigerator or the freezer, however, where they can dry out or go mouldy.

Vanilla price up tenfold and more

In the past few years, real vanilla has become increasingly expensive due to poor harvests but also as a result of corruption on Madagascar. This country accounts for over 80% of total vanilla production and so holds a monopoly. According to reports, vanilla is being harvested far too early there. In that case, the pod is not yet at its best and the taste is substandard. The price of vanilla has risen sharply in the past few years: more than tenfold compared with a few years ago.

Substitutes for vanilla?

Because real vanilla is gradually becoming extremely expensive, alternatives are increasingly being used. With a few chemical processes, vanilla can be obtained from cloves, rice, wood and... petroleum. The latter is the cheapest alternative and is very often used by food producers. Can it come close to the taste and flavour of real vanilla? No, almost everyone agrees on that. But little by little, vanilla is becoming prohibitively expensive and is not that easy to replace.

What are the alternatives to vanilla pods?

Vanilla extract or essence
Less good-quality vanilla pods are immersed in alcohol for three to six months and then mixed with syrup. Available with and without vanilla specks. Allow around 15 g per kg of quantity.

Vanilla flavouring or essence
This is a blend of synthetic vanillin, alcohol, glycerin and syrup. The dose is identical to vanilla extract, but the taste is different. Be sure to test it enough before switching.

Concentrated (natural) vanilla flavouring
This is highly concentrated vanilla flavouring. It is best to dose by drop or approx. 0.4-0.8 g per kg of quantity. Again: test first.

The prices in this category vary substantially, from EUR 20 to EUR 200 per litre. They are also difficult to compare. The natural vanillin content is decisive for the price.

Vanilla sugar
Synthetic vanillin mixed with sugar. Can be used to make cakes, biscuits and whipped cream.

Reusing vanilla pods
Drying vanilla pods after use is certain worth considering. Rinse them first. After a few weeks, you can mix the dry pods, possibly with a little sugar. Then they will be perfectly suitable for giving shortcrust pasty, croissants, meringue or madeleines a subtle and cost-cutting taste and flavour of real vanilla.

Did you know?

Scientists have often tried to get the vanilla orchid to bloom here so as to be able to harvest the coveted vanilla pods. So far they have not succeeded. Another possible natural solution grows in Bleiswijk (Netherlands). Here the University of Wageningen is working on a trial to grow Nedervanille or Dutch vanilla from the greenhouse. We’ll have to wait and see if it succeeds, because vanilla grows slowly. It takes three years before the plant has any fruit. Then the pods have to ripen for nine months on the plant and ferment for another three months. Are you starting to understand where this unique, natural taste comes from?

Read more about real vanilla on this Prova website.

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