Vanilla has a reputation for being plain and boring, but it is actually one of the world’s most expensive spices. Cultivating vanilla plants is difficult and time-intensive at the best of times, relying on pollinating the plants at a precise time, not to mention the months that follow necessary to prepare the beans for sale. Now, a bad harvest could spell trouble for the ice cream industry as it faces one of the worst vanilla shortages in years.
The very best vanilla comes from three countries: Madagascar, Mexico and Tahiti. Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, and is just as hard to grow and harvest as its delicate cousins. Seeing as vanilla flowers only open once on one day of the year, farmers have to be extremely precise about when they hand-pollinate the plants, Alex Swerdloff reports for Munchies. Once the plant is pollinated and produces a pod, it then has to be sun-cured for months and sheltered in a box overnight. But because of a bad harvest in Madagascar last year, the price of vanilla has spiked nearly 150 percent, putting the squeeze on ice cream makers around the world.
“The price has doubled in the last month,” Charlie Thuillier, founder and owner of the British ice cream brand Oppo tells Zoe Wood for the Guardian. “We were paying €35 [about $40] a liter in February but now it’s €76 [about $86]).”
Much like wine, vanilla takes on different flavors depending on the soil and environment it grows in. Madagascar vanilla has long been a favorite of the ice cream industry for its specific flavors, and the shortage has left many ice cream makers worried about having to raise prices just as the summer is fast approaching, Clint Rainey reports for Grub Street.
“Vanilla is every ice-cream company’s biggest-selling product,” Dave Bishop, production manager at New Forest Ice Cream tells Wood. “You can bring out a niche flavour but vanilla will still be top. You’ve just got to take the hit on it because customers would notice the difference.”
Vanilla’s skyrocketing price is also having a detrimental effect on the quality of the vanilla that is available on the market. As vanilla is a prized commodity at the best of times, it is a prime target for thieves looking to make a quick buck by snagging a few pods out from under the nose of farmers. To ward off would-be thieves and make an extra profit off their crop, some in the industry are now harvesting their vanilla beans earlier, which can make the beans less flavorful and the customers even pickier, Rainey writes. But because Madagascar vanilla has such a unique flavor, ice cream makers are leery to look elsewhere for the spice.
“You can get vanilla extract all over the world but we chose Madagascar because it had the greatest depth of flavour,” Thuillier tells Wood.
While some ice cream manufacturers could turn to artificial flavors to make up the difference during the shortage, many are refusing because of modern consumers’ tastes for “natural” foods. Luckily, the numbers for next year’s vanilla harvest are already looking better, but that crop won’t be ready for months. Until then, that summer ice cream cone might be getting pricey than usual.