Mediocre vanilla at premium prices
While the 2015 vanilla harvest in Madagascar, the main producer of this aromatic orchid, is currently worth around $300 per kilogramme, the high price is not indicative of its flavour. Explanations.
Thanks to its sensual and exquisite aromas, vanilla is a commodity which is extensively traded across the globe. Armed guards are hired to prevent the theft of crops in the tropical jungle. This year however, it is not the quality of the 2015 Madagascan pods that is arousing so much interest, but the sky-high prices, which approach $300 dollars a kilo1.
Yoann Cassam Chenai, a leading expert on vanilla, has his own opinion on the subject: “World demand has exploded and supply cannot keep pace. Madagascar recorded a 35% drop in production in 2015 due to a poor harvest. The pods are smaller and only contain 1.2% vanillin, compared to 1.8% in 2014. This means that the 2015 harvest of Madagascan vanilla will be overlooked in favour of remaining stocks of 2014 and 2013 vanilla, or that from other countries.”
Madagascan industry in danger
A temporary bad patch? Not necessarily! Ten years ago, Madagascan growers would only harvest ripe pods, even if that meant having to go back through the plantations several times. Today, growers tend to harvest everything at the same time to avoid having to pay security guards to protect against theft. Another issue is the packaging of poorly cured pods in vacuum-sealed containers to increase the weight of the goods when sold. Some producers are also accused of producing ‘rotten vanilla’. Such practices have been amplified by the demand from rosewood traffickers who buy and sell low-grade vanilla as a way of laundering their income gained from the illegal trade of this prized wood2. The long-term future of the Madagascan vanilla trade is certainly in danger.
Nonetheless, a backlash is a distinct possibility because end consumers are not easily fooled and may refuse to pay a high price for a product they deem to be of mediocre quality. Discerning food lovers may turn to other producing countries to obtain high quality vanilla, while the food industry may decide to make do with synthetic substitutes.
Origins and characteristics