Tuesday, June 26, 2018

"Why One Island Grows 80% of the World’s Vanilla"

From Gastro Obscura, June 20:
Last week, the Wisconsin-based business Penzey’s Spices sent out emails emblazoned with a frown emoji. The occasion was a several dollars per ounce hike in the price of vanilla. Founder Bill Penzey wrote a brief explanation: Madagascar, where 80 percent of the world’s vanilla comes from, has been going through a rough patch. A perfect storm of drought and a pair of cyclones hit vanilla farmers hard. The rippling effects have disrupted everything from the supply chains of massive multinational companies to the flavoring in fudge.

But how did one island come to dominate the vanilla industry? And why is one kilogram of “plain vanilla” now more valuable than one kilogram of silver?

After all, vanilla isn’t even native to Madagascar. The main source of vanilla is the Vanilla planiflolia orchid. Long cultivated in Mexico, the flavoring from its long pods was used in rituals and in the traditional Aztec drink of ground, spiced chocolate. As Spain’s conquistadors dismantled the Aztec empire in the 16th century, they sent Mexican silver, chocolate, and vanilla back to Europe. Vanilla, with its floral, subtle taste, quickly became a favorite, especially as an accompaniment to chocolate and cream. But when Europeans tried to grow it in their botanical gardens and their colonies, the long pods didn’t develop. Vanilla’s main pollinator was back in Mexico: the Melipona bee....MORE