The Scoop on Vanilla
When I was a child, we alternated hosting holidays with our cousins. I remember one Thanksgiving well. My mother had made a mince pie, and we brought freshly made ice cream from Gruning's, a local restaurant and soda fountain. After the main course, my aunt disappeared into the kitchen to prepare the dessert. Taking the ice cream out of the freezer, my cousin Laura uttered in disgust, “Oh, Mah, dumb vanilla!”
Vanilla may have had a bad rap with its bland reputation, but it has come full circle, leaving behind artificial substitutes to join the list of comestibles whose natural ingredients, fine flavor, and artisanal production are now highly valued.
In the mid-19th century, the French introduced the plant, vanilla planifolia, to Madagascar, the Mascarene islands of Mauritius and Réunion, and the Comoros. By the late 1890s, vanilla was Madagascar’s most profitable export, and today this Indian Ocean island is the world’s largest producer of the flavorful beans. The plant -- it's actually a vine in the orchid family -- is grown primarily in northeastern Madagascar in what is called the “vanilla triangle,” in the area of Sambava, Antalaha, Vohemar, and Andapa.
Vanilla farming is a delicate and labor-intensive process. Pollination is done manually at the critical time when each flower first appears. Once mature, the green beans are harvested. This is a time-consuming process as each bean must be checked for ripeness. Transported to the curing house in woven-grass baskets, the beans are “killed” or “cooked” for no longer than two to three minutes in containers of hot water heated over a wood fire to 145°-149°F (63°-65°C). They are then placed in “sweating” boxes for 24 hours, after which the beans are taken outside to dry in the sun on cloths for about an hour before they are brought indoors. This process is repeated over six to eight days until the beans become supple. The next stage involves slow drying in dark, well-ventilated rooms for a period of two to three months, and the beans are sorted regularly until ready for conditioning. This involves once again sorting and then straightening each bean by drawing it through the fingers in order to spread the oils which give the bean its luster. Beans of the same length are then bundled together, tied, and placed in boxes for sale or shipment.
Sorting the cured beans, Plantation Millot, Ambanja
It takes about three years for the first vanilla flowers to appear on the plant’s vines; the beans remain on the vines for nine months before harvest; and the curing and drying process can take six to eight months. All-in-all, the time from planting to readiness for sale takes nearly five years. Much like cacao, vanilla has never been incorporated into the Malagasy culture as either a medicine or culinary flavor and ingredient, except in restaurants at tourist hotels, while the beans along with other local spices are sold to tourists at outdoor markets.
Fried shrimp and plantains with a sauce flavored by a vanilla bean,
served at a restaurant in Hell-ville, Nosy Be island.
In August 2016, when we visited a vanilla curing house on Plantation Millot near Ambanja, in the heart of Madagascar's cacao-producing region in the Sambirano Valley, women were involved in all stages of processing the beans. In white and green uniforms, their T-shirts were printed with the phrase “Madagasikara tanindrazantsika lavanio harenantsika andao harovantsika!!!” Translated from Malagasy, this means "Madagascar is our homeland. Our wealth is vanilla. Let's protect it." The logo was prescient as we glimpsed female workers being patted down before their lunch break to ensure no beans were hidden in their clothes.
The vanilla logo of Madagascar, Plantation Millot, Ambanja "Madagasikara Tanindrazanay Lavanio harenantsika Andao harovantsika” ('Madagscar is our homeland. Our wealth is vanilla. Let's protect it')
At Plantation Millot’s B&B, vanilla beans were available for sale to guests for $200 a pound. Pricing depends upon production, quality, and availability of the beans, especially if there is a poor harvest or if producers warehouse and hoard the cured beans to keep them off the market to generate higher prices. But this can be risky should beans later flood the market and cause the price of vanilla to decline, the plantation manager Brunot Dunoyer explained to me. As with other trade commodities, supply and demand determine the beans' price, and the vanilla market is notoriously unstable.
From left to right: Hiridjee, one of the three owners, his son Elan, and
Brunot Dunoyer, manager of Plantation Millot. Valrhona, the French
chocolate company, is also an owner and major investor.
According to the journalist Jonathan Watts, the surging price of vanilla on global markets has precipitated violence, village crime, and murders, not to mention deforestation as more and more land is cleared to grow vanilla. Thefts of the precious crop have been reported in most of the key growing regions, and when the hustlers and thieves are captured, they are often subject to mob justice, as in Anjahana recently. In addition, gangs that previously felled and sold rosewood illegally to China are now using their networks to launder money through the vanilla industry.
In 2011, vanilla was $11 a pound; by the end of 2016, it had reached $193 a pound, almost 20 times its price of five years earlier. In the near future, crime and vanilla bean shortage will drive up the price, and the vanilla bubble will only get bigger.
For more information on Madagascar, or "Bourbon," vanilla and the dark side to growing the spice, see the recent New York Times article -- "Precious as Silver, Vanilla Brings Cash and Crime to Madagascar":
Patricia Rain, Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004).
"Vanilla bean shortage in Madagascar drives up prices in U.S." CBS News, February 14, 2017. Jonathan Watts, "Madagascar’s vanilla wars: prized spice drives death and deforestation." In www.theguardian.com, March 31, 2018.
Photographs of vanilla workers and plantation personnel in this blog are courtesy of E.H. Wallop. The food image is from my portfolio of Madagascar photos. The illustration at the beginning of this post is from the work of Maria Sibylla Merian. For more about her as an artist and scientist, see my March 14, 2018 blog.