There are few things as American as apple pie.
And having it with vanilla ice cream or a la mode is almost automatic.
That age-old pairing now seems threatened as wholesale vanilla bean prices have jumped thirty-fold in recent months leaving dessert companies and consumers scrambling for alternatives. While there was a natural disaster that wiped out acres of bean production, the story of expensive vanilla is more complex.
To begin with, vanilla beans are not beans at all. They are the seed pods of orchids. And these orchids bear no resemblance to the millions of ornately potted Phalaenopsis given as hostess gifts each year. I’m sad to report that vanilla orchids are gangly, uneventful vines whose flowers are only fresh for a matter of hours.
The process of getting flavoring from vanilla plants is clouded in mystery to all but the industry insiders. Early morning manual pollination of each flower is just the beginning of a 15+ month labor intensive exercise that will see the seed pods ripen then get harvested, cured, graded, and eventually sold to wholesalers.
For most of the 2000’s, dried vanilla beans sold for a meager $20/kilo which barely covered the costs for the tropical farmers of Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and other developing countries. As a result, many growers abandoned their vines in favor of more profitable crops.
However, it wasn’t long before poor harvests due to weather or other factors drove the prices back up and soon everyone was replanting vanilla. This boom and bust cycle was exacerbated in March when Cyclone Eliakim directly hit the top Vanilla producer, Madagascar, decimating an estimated 30% of the plants.
Overnight, dried beans were selling for $600/kilo or thirty times their normal price.
“It is unlikely that prices will fall before the beginning of 2019” says vanilla expert, Patricia Rain, who spoke with me at the World Orchid Conference in Ecuador last fall. “No major buyer wants to purchase vanilla beans in volume at that (high) price knowing the likelihood of a collapse is bound to occur.” She is the author of Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. “
Dessert manufacturers now find themselves in a pickle, so to speak. There is the temptation to substitute inexpensive imitation flavoring in their vanilla-based recipes. Meanwhile, market studies show consumers are asking for all natural ingredients in their food.
Hobbyists have gotten in on the action with the idea of growing their own vanilla beans. These ambitious gardeners generally report success with the foliage which tends to flourish under daily misting and dappled light.
A typical beginner’s vine, V planifolia, is a few feet long and is tied to a central post within a pot. As the vine tip elongates, it can be wrapped around the post many times. In the jungle, these orchids completely cover tree trunks.
The challenge for the amateur is coaxing their plants to bloom. Vanilla vines need to be quite mature, often five years old or more, before they yield their trademark clusters of buds.
Then, each morning, a new flower opens only to close by afternoon. Pollinators must act quickly since freshness improves the likelihood of successful fertilization. Hybridizers start the two minute task with a toothpick.
Next month, a look at what it takes to make kitchen-ready vanilla.