Producing vanilla, the world’s second most expensive spice is a waiting game. And the global market is impatient. When poor harvests meet insatiable demand, everyone loses.
Lulu couldn’t hold off the early buyers.
The first unsolicited callers arrived in September 2016, four months before the vanilla crops that sprawl across Uganda’s Rwenzori region would be fully ripened. In quieter times, Lulu had shrugged them off and got on with her work of more than 17 years: curing, packing, branding and marketing vanilla exploding outwards with vanillin crystals. “They ruin it for that season,” she admitted, “but hopefully the next season they’ve come on board with you and seen that they were stupid to buy months early, and don’t do it again.”
However, in October, the stream of incoming buyers became a deluge. “We haven’t even reached November and they have been buying their vanilla in earnest for about the past two weeks.” Lulu said.
There’s no prizes for guessing why: the current price for vanilla is ludicrously, unsustainably high. It’s been surging ever-higher - up to 120% year-on-year since 2012, according to the data company Mintec. A recent industry report reveals that $360,000 (£283,000 in today’s exchange rate) will buy you just one tonne of beans.
Enter Madagascar. It’s the big fish of the global vanilla market, producing 80% of the world’s supply (in 2014 this equated to exports of $192m, equivalent to £151m). So, when in 2015 Madagascar’s annual harvest ended at 1,300-1,400 tonnes - far less than the 2,000 tonne figure judged to be decent - prices burst through the roof. This rise was exacerbated further by get rich quick schemes involving cutting crops early or cutting corners often. Vacuum-packing - a process which retains the moisture and therefore weight of the beans (meaning: £££) so they can be sold when prices are hiked - became so commonplace that Madagascar’s government banned the practice. The vacuum-packed beans that escaped the ban by nefarious means were low quality, and often mouldy by the time they reached the colder climates of the US or Europe.
Forward-thinkers turned towards Uganda, eager to capitalise on the country’s two rainy seasons, and subsequent two harvests. The buyers there in October 2016, many of whom were agents on commission, wanted vanilla immediately: “They don’t mind producing c**p quality vanilla, and they don’t mind producing immature vanilla that may be prone to mould. I don’t know quite how they get away with it.” said Lulu.
The Rwenzori farmers want money and fear theft if they hold out. Lulu wants both these things and more - more time for the region’s beans to fully ripen and produce the high levels of vanillin associated with exquisite, iridescent vanillin crystals. As she tells it, these crystals produce beans that are “like the champagne and truffles of vanilla.”
“I refuse to go and buy premature vanilla”, said Lulu. The brand she created provides vanilla for cosmetics-, chocolate- and ice cream-makers, so quality is of paramount importance. And she’s adamant, “the only way you’re going to get nice vanilla is if you harvest it at the right time. There’s no way around that.”
Is it the end of the whirl as we know it?
The world’s craving for the sweet treat is insatiable though, requiring a staggering 2,700 and 3,000 tonnes a year. In pop culture, ‘vanilla’ has been synonymous with “unexciting, normal, conventional, boring"; even reality TV purveyor Simon Cowell recently repurposed it to insult someone. But, while Cowell may be an acquired taste, vanilla certainly isn’t. It’s found in everything from ice cream, chocolates and cola to pastries and perfumes.
So, how has the industry coped? Is it the end of the Viennese whirl, or Mr Whippy, as we know them? For some, it has meant focusing on other ranges. In 2016, for the first time in eight years, there were more chocolate flavoured ice creams launched in the UK than vanilla flavours (including vanilla bourbon and Madagascan vanilla). For others, alternative sources of vanillin have proved tempting, such as synthesizing it from guaiacol (a petrochemical) or making it from pine bark, clove oil, rice bran or lignin.
The rest - both vast, industrial users that have made public promises to go natural and smaller and artisanal companies like the award-winning Purbeck Ice Cream company - have had to saddle the higher prices in order to not compromise on taste. “As our brand is built around our premium quality ice cream, all natural ingredients without additives and colourings, we are committed to using only the best ingredients for our customers, and fake or paste alternatives are just not an option for us.” said Purbeck Ice Cream Sales and Marketing team member Emily.
A knee-jerk reaction to this problem might be to simply suggest: grow more vanilla. However, growing vanilla is far from simple. First, there’s the pollination. You have 12 hours. “In fact, it’s less than that, it’s more like 8 hours”, said Lulu, because the flower will open in the morning with the sun, then wither as it begins to set. You have only your hands and a whittled stick (or perhaps a pin) to assist you. Your task is to press the male and female parts together so that the pollen sticks. Consider this the easy step. Next, comes blanching - immersing the beans in hot water - “sweating” them and drying them by the sun. Traditionally, curing takes a minimum of three months, six for what Lulu calls “really beautiful beans”, and nine is deemed optimum.