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Is your favourite vanilla ice cream now a luxury treat?

This is the dark story behind the world’s favourite flavour.

by: Katy Rose | 10 May 2018
Vanilla prices soar 2018

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Vanilla is the world’s most ubiquitous flavour and it’s anything but ‘plain’.
The soaring price of vanilla beans made headlines this week, most notably in Europe, where the prospect of a Summer without vanilla ice cream seems to have many readers in a panic. 

The rare spice is imitated and forged and stolen, and yet this exotic ingredient in everyday terms has come to mean ‘plain’ or just a ‘creamy kind of sweetness’.

Currently more expensive than silver by weight , and second only to saffron, you can purchase a kilogram of whole vanilla pods for about R7500.00. Vanilla essence can be bought in any supermarket for next to nothing - this is largely a scent compound and not a flavour compound. Give the alcoholic brown liquid a quick taste, and it is probably not a mistake you will ever repeat. 

vanilla prices rice 2018

Vanilla is one of the remaining spices that is still traded on an almost pre-Columbian scale. The seed pod of a rare orchid, the vanilla vine was originally discovered in Central America but has since found its new agricultural home in the northwestern hills of Madagascar, near the town of Sambava. 

vanilla prices rice 2018

Almost 80% of the world’s vanilla beans are grown, harvested and cured in Madagascar. The soaring prices have now made large-scale agriculture in other countries more viable with new plantations emerging in Uganda, Mexico and Indonesia with each season. 

Most plantations in Madagascar are small holdings, operated and manned by a family, their children and perhaps extended family members. Due to the delicate nature of the vanilla orchid, almost all farming practices must be undertaken by hand. The lack of mechanisation is significant, and farms can only expand as much as the manual labour will allow.

vanilla prices rice 2018

The orchid grows slowly, in damp warm tropical plantations, taking 3 to 4 years before the plant bears fruit that can be harvested. The rare orchid flower opens but once a year, and due to its immigrant status in Madagascar, it doesn’t have any natural pollinators such as birds or insects. Instead, each flower must be delicately pollinated by hand. 

After pollination, the flower matures into a long, slim, green seed pod. The pod can take up to 9 months to mature on the vine, during which time the plants must be cared for and protected - vanilla pod theft is common in Madagascar. 

The longer the beans mature on the vine, the deeper the flavour develops as the concentrations of vanillin (the vanilla-ery compound) increase. For this reason, stolen and black market vanilla is of a far inferior quality, containing less vanillin, and is often sold at unbelievably low prices. Vanilla pods are dried in the sun and aged until they look like shriveled, leathery, dark brown beans. The glossy skin is a good sign indicating that although the pod is dried and concentrated, the volatile oils and flavour compounds are still intact. 

Environmental factors combined with market pressures drive the price of vanilla ever skywards

In recent years, the annual cyclones have become more and more powerful. In 2017, Cyclone Enawo battered the northern coasts of Madagascar, destroying 250 000 homes, and decimating the vanilla crops. The impact of this storm is only now reaching the market. 

Consumers are also driving the market, with a growing demand to eat natural, whole foods with minimal, or even no chemical flavours or colours. The abandonment of cheaper and abundant, vanilla substitutes created a boom in natural, whole vanilla trade. 

In 2015, international food manufacturers Nestlé made the commitment to move towards all natural ingredients in their products. This trend is especially noticeable in what we could call “guilty” foods - we are continuing to demand more and more wholesomeness from the foods that perhaps we feel the most guilt in consuming. Chocolate, ice cream, coffee and expensive wines are all feeling the drive to clean up their labels in an effort to sanitise and glorify the naturalness of the ingredients. 

The rising price of vanilla on the international market has brought both blessings and heartache for the farming communities of Madagascar. Vanilla pod theft, straight from the vine long before maturation, is common. Tensions rise as the vanilla ripens, and farmers resort to defending their crops at night at the end of a shotgun. Armed groups of farmers patrol the fields after dark, desperately trying to defend their crops that represent not only a huge payday for their families but also often up to 4 years of back-breaking labour. 

Vanilla in your home
Due to its incredible intrinsic value, vanilla-like other rare flavours such a truffle and saffron is processed into a number of different formats for every conceivable application. 

Predictably, whole vanilla beans are the most expensive. They are often sold in single clear plastic vials in high-end supermarkets. The whole bean has the highest concentration of seeds and is best of flavouring liquids, syrups and dairy recipes such as ice creams and custards. 

In baked goods such as cakes and biscuits, vanilla extract is best. Extract and pastes can sometimes have a slightly coarser texture, which is best disguised in a sponge or pastry. 

vanilla prices rice 2018

In the mid-2000s it seemed that every feminine bath, hair and beauty product came in a heavy, sweet vanilla incarnation. For the most part, vanilla scents in non-food products are derived from petrochemicals or wood pulp. 

Despite the rising costs of vanilla, our demand for the fragrant spice still remains high. Perhaps still affordable for the occasional birthday cake or restaurant dish, the biggest impact will be felt by small food producers with a focus on natural ingredients. Expect to see vanilla disappearing from your favourite fancy chocolates, handmade ice creams and decadent pastries. 

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