In April this year, the Financial Times ran an article about vanilla prices reaching an all-time high. Why would something so vanilla, as vanilla, make it into the FT? Because the price of vanilla has grown exponentially in recent years, thanks to our love of this little plant and its popularity in all baking and confectionery. In April of this year, vanilla was trading at $600 per kilo, up from $100 per kilo in 2015.
Discerning consumers have been steadily turning their backs on artificial flavours and colourings in food, and instead demanding the real deal.
But vanilla beans are the seeds of a vine-like orchid, an orchid that has to be hand pollinated. And it takes up to three years for a plant to mature and start to produce these beans.
Madagascar produces 80-85% of the world’s vanilla crop. When Cyclone Enawo struck Madagascar in March, displacing almost half a million people, it also decimated the vanilla crop, destroying nearly 20% of it. Considering the crop the previous year had been affected by drought, it should come as no surprise then, that with increasing consumer demand and a supply shortage, prices for the commodity have skyrocketed.
Vanilla ice cream became popular in the USA thanks to Thomas Jefferson, who tasted it in France in the 1780s and brought it home with him. It fast became a huge hit and has remained a permanent crowd-pleaser ever since, with scientists attributing it's similarity to breast milk, as the reason we love it so much.
Vanilla grows wild in Mexico, where it is pollinated by local birds and insects. In Madagascar these birds and insects don’t exist, so the plants have to be pollinated by hand. Once the seed pods have been harvested, they’re soaked in hot water, wrapped in wool blankets and placed in wooden boxes to sweat for up to 48 hours. Finally, they’re laid out in the sun, for only one hour a day to dry out. It goes without saying that this is why Vanilla remains the world's second most expensive spice, after Saffron.
This whole process takes months and is so time-consuming and labour intensive, that in the run-up to the current shortage a vast majority of farmers simply gave up, it wasn’t worth the effort.
In recent years, food companies have turned to synthetic vanilla to flavour their products, but since consumers have started shunning artificial flavours, colours and ingredients in their food, producers have had to resume using the real thing. Putting even more pressure on already fragile supply chains.
But there aren’t enough vanilla-producing orchids, according to Nielsen of the company Nielsen Massey, there just isn’t the supply to meet the demand. This, coupled with the drought and cyclone, means we are looking at a chronic vanilla shortage, for some time to come. We are however monitoring this closely and are in regular contact with our producers in Madagascar, to ensure that we continue to offer you only the best 100% natural ingredients in all our gourmet food products.
Vanilla flavour can be added to any sweet dish to enhance its flavour: think ice cream, desserts, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, even Earl Grey tea with vanilla, you name it, pure organic vanilla will boost it. Little wonder it is the second most expensive spice in the world and demand has been increasing year on year for decades.
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Seán Farrell – Founder, Chateau Rouge