(This article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Producing high-quality vanilla is more difficult than one might imagine, given it has been a staple in kitchens for centuries. In recent decades, the industry has suffered through crop losses, inconsistent quality, and unsustainable pricing which threaten to destroy one of the most treasured spices for pastry professionals around the world. But thanks to the help of many capable hands, it is on the journey back to greatness. From dedicated farmers to large companies participating in sustainability efforts and finally to the creative pastry chefs always craving something better, good quality vanilla is back, and it is here to stay.
On the remote French Polynesian island of Taha’a, over 3,000 miles away from the coast of Australia, the dozen staff members at Vallée de la Vanille are hard at work. It is harvest season for vanilla beans, and some thirty plantations from around the island rely on these workers to properly cure and export their vanilla bean crops each year. The island produces seventy percent of vanilla tahitensis, or what is most commonly known as Tahitian vanilla. Many of the farms on the island have been in families for multiple generations and producing a top-quality product is of the utmost importance. Their tour guide, who simply goes by Brian, explains, “We don’t want to lose our reputation, because if you lose that, you can’t sell them.” He goes on to explain that hand massaging the beans each day as they dry out naturally in the sun is the secret to a good quality Tahitian vanilla bean to preserve its elasticity and even distribution.
But climate change and panic in the global market has threatened their very existence over the years, with drastic price fluctuations making it increasingly difficult to stay in business without the reliance on other crops. Pricing has always been difficult for such a luxury commodity because it is so labor intensive. Vanilla flowers need to be pollinated by hand in the short six-hour window each one is in bloom. The resulting beans grow for five months and then must be harvested by hand and dried in the sun. This unpredictable nine-month cycle cannot be cut short in any way, for it leads to substandard quality. These shortcuts are what contributed to the many years of poor quality in the past few decades in other regions of the world. Threats of theft and pressures to produce more caused some farmers to pick early or use inferior practices or beans to meet increased demand, and the vanilla industry suffered. Coupled with severe weather conditions like cyclones which wiped out entire crops, prices skyrocketed even for inferior quality, making vanilla the second most expensive spice in the world. Only saffron could surpass it.
Across the world, many tireless efforts are underway to save the industry by focusing on the largest vanilla global production location, the island of Madagascar. Vanilla fragrans, or Bourbon vanilla, makes up about eighty percent of the world market’s vanilla each year. Organizations like the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative (SVI) are working to stabilize the global market and maintain high quality standards through sustainability efforts. “Our biggest goal is to support farmer livelihoods, so they get a consistent, decent income. And that’s when farmers can develop quality goods, when they can do it for a price that’s good for them and good for the market,” explains Don Seville of the Sustainable Food Lab, partner in SVI. The participating members seek to promote sustainability and traceability, as well as fair and safe labor practices in Madagascar, as well as the expansion into Uganda. A diverse global footprint helps stabilize the market, so if a natural disaster threatens one region, others can help balance out the supply.
While Ugandan vanilla strives to be an alternative to Madagascar by using the same species, the inherent differences in terroir make it practically impossible to be identical. But turning what was thought to be negative into a positive, companies like Nielsen-Massey who participate in the SVI, are touting the benefits of the different flavor profiles. “The reaction from professional chefs has been very positive, as each origin offers its own distinct flavor notes – allowing them to experiment with new flavor experiences,” describes Craig Nielsen, Vice President of Sustainability. Their newer single-origin extracts from Uganda and Indonesia were introduced during a time of increased interest in global flavors, making it a win-win for both chefs and sustainability efforts.
Similarly, global scent giant Symrise has so much faith in their participation in SVI and the stabilized market that they have launched a new line of extracts under the brand vnlla Extract Co. “As home and professional chefs evolve, so must our ingredient options,” explains Paul Graham, president of Symrise’s North America division. Touting new fans like chef Sam Mason of Oddfellows in New York, vnlla seeks to enhance their Bourbon vanilla extract by combining it with lemon, orange, and spice blends to offer unique new flavor combinations. “The profiles are exciting, and they accentuate my creations beautifully,” Mason asserts.
Back on Taha’a, where seventy percent of their crop is exported to France, Brian was thrilled to recall a recent visit from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ 2018 Best Pastry Chef award winner Cédric Grolet. Like Mason, he was in pursuit of inspiration and high-quality ingredients and left the island with several hundred kilos of vanilla beans on order. No doubt when others hear this news, Brian and his fellow islanders will stay in business for years to come. Word of good quality travels fast.
And despite the Covid-19 pandemic, industry insiders remain optimistic that the supply and demand of vanilla will remain stable. The 2020 crop was successful in the major growing regions, and the SVI partners implemented safety protocols for the farm workers to protect their health while harvesting. There was an obvious shift on the supply side, as restaurants were forced to close. Thankfully, home baking skyrocketed, and many suppliers reconfigured their packaging and online strategies as the needs continued to change for both home and professional use. “We have seen chefs become increasingly creative in developing new ventures, whether that’s small business or food delivery,” notes Nielson. “We are starting to see demand pick up.” So, while everyone is trying to figure out their new normal, at least they can rest assured that vanilla will be ready and waiting for whatever the industry thinks of next, thanks to the diligent, helpful hands across the world.