Move over gold and silver and diamonds and Bitcoin. There’s another precious commodity around. Vanilla. Vanilla? Yes, that vanilla.
Stuck inside the house thanks to COVID, I found myself thinking–not about vanilla–but about banana bread. A lot. I mean everyday. All day. At breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. While watching TV. Showering. I even dreamt of banana bread. I had sweet dreams, literally.
My favorite banana bread recipe (which was posted on Opinionated Woman here) called for a teaspoon of vanilla extract. When I finally got off my butt to make some banana bread, low and behold, I discovered I was plum out of vanilla.
I tried making the recipe without vanilla. What difference could a teaspoon make, right? Wrong-o. The banana bread turned out okay, but it lacked a little something. Richness? Intensity? Flavor? VANILLA!
Next time I went to Trader Joe’s, I reached up to the top shelf for Organic Pure Bourbon Vanilla Extract and got something unexpected with it: VANILLA STICKER SHOCK. Vanilla extract was going for ten bucks a bottle! That’s for four measly ounces of the stuff.
Last time I purchased vanilla, which, admittedly, had been quite awhile, it was around three dollars. So-ooo did I pull the trigger and pay more than triple the price? Nope. I just couldn’t do it. I figured the steep price tag was an anomaly. I went home vanilla-less.
But guess what? Vanilla was pricey everywhere I checked. From Walmart to Mariano’s to Jewel to Amazon. At The Spice House, four ounces of vanilla went for, gasp, $25.99!!!
I started thinking: if this keeps up, future generations will be changing its old proverbs, cliches and movie lines. I imagined: Friendship is worth its weight in vanilla??? All that glitters is not vanilla??? Vanilla is a girl’s best friend???
That’s when I went on an internet search to find out what was up (no pun intended) with vanilla. Turns out the word “vanilla” doesn’t deserve the bad rap it gets. It’s often used to mean boring, conventional, ordinary. But the flavor–and story of vanilla– is complex, nuanced, even mysterious.
Where does vanilla come from? I had no idea. I knew vanilla extract came from vanilla beans, but I had never heard of a vanilla plant.
I soon found out that vanilla is harvested from the seeds–or beans– of a vine orchid plant. Although the plant is native to Mexico, 80% of the vanilla crop is now grown in Madagascar. Producing vanilla, folks, is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process.
In Mexico, birds and insects pollinate the plant naturally, but there are no natural pollinators for it in Madagascar. That means the seeds or beans– or to be more accurate: the fruit or seed pods –of the vanilla planifolia orchid have to be pollinated by hand!
As I delved into further vanilla research, I learned there were other factors which contributed to the jacked-up price:
*Once planted, a new vanilla orchid vine can take up to three years to begin producing flowers.
*The vanilla orchids are in bloom for only one day! The laborers must work quickly to pollinate. Then it takes another six months until the beans are ready to harvest.
*The beans must be carefully cured, sweated and even massaged (which made me think of vanilla beans going to a spa) before they’re ready for market. And get this: each pollinated flower produces only one single vanilla bean!
Only seven years ago, vanilla could be found for $10 per kilo. In 2019, it was going for over $500 per kilo! Vanilla was trading at a price higher than silver!
Why did the price soar? Many reasons. Aside from the difficulty in producing vanilla, throw in a decline in growers, vanilla thieves, and bad weather, including a deadly cyclone in 2017, which destroyed crops as well as lives.
Then there was limited supply and high demand, caused in part, by food and beverage manufacturers (think: Nestle, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg’s), who began replacing cheaper imitation vanilla (often made with wood pulp) with real vanilla in their products because of consumer demand for more natural ingredients. Natch, the price of vanilla rose.
I finally made my favorite banana bread recipe–with pure vanilla extract. The bread was as yummy as I hoped it would be. By the way, I ended up buying the vanilla back where I started: Trader Joe’s. Yep, I held my nose and paid the $10.00. Ouch.
Still, the trading price of vanilla has come down a bit– to $250 per kilo, according to Food Business News. All of which proves is what goes up, doesn’t necessary come down for you and me.
To end this story on a sweet note instead of a bitter one, click onto my favorite recipe for coconut macaroons, made with, of course, vanilla.
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