Vanilla – more Expensive than Silver

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. Vanilla essence can be bought in any supermarket for next to nothing – this is largely a scent compound and not a flavor compound.

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.

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 labor will allow.

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.

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