JANE FRYER: Why vanilla ice cream is off the menu

JANE FRYER: A handful of vanilla pods now cost more than silver – with demand so great thieves have been stoned to death… and even the Mafia is muscling in

As the sun scorched, temperatures soared and everyone got hot and pink over this glorious bank holiday weekend, ice cream sellers should have been doing a little jig of joy and thanking the gods that (for once) they were in the right business.

But no. Not a bit of it. They were more likely wringing their hands, fretting about their balance sheets and saying, again and again (with a very straight face): ‘No, I’m not joking — we don’t make vanilla any more . . .’

You see, vanilla, the nation’s favourite ice cream flavour — despite an abundance of other varieties, nine out of ten of us still opt for it — is increasingly off the menu. At nearly £600 per kilo of vanilla pods, it’s now more expensive than silver.

Vanilla, the nation’s favourite ice cream flavour — despite an abundance of other varieties, nine out of ten of us still opt for it — is increasingly off the menu

As a result, an increasing number of ice cream parlours are removing vanilla ices from their selections. (Plus a raft of other varieties, too, because vanilla is used in at least 30 per cent of ice cream flavours.)

Some ice cream makers have started using a synthetically-produced vanilla in its place — which is known as vanillin, costs just $10 a kilo, is made from coal tar and is less potent and scented. But, of course, that won’t satisfy foody purists or the artisan makers of ice cream — or discerning consumers.

Vanilla has always been expensive, owing to its labour-intensive production. Back in the 16th century, Hernan Cortes, one of the Spanish Conquistadors, and the man who helped introduce vanilla around the world, even referred to it as ‘culinary gold’.

Today, the trade in vanilla is so lucrative that it has led to a surge in violent crime, including horrific murders, while the Mafia is exploiting the price frenzy to launder money.

It’s over the past seven years that prices have surged, up nearly ten-fold, from $65 to $600 per kilo of vanilla pods, making it the world’s second most expensive spice (after saffron).

At nearly £600 per kilo of vanilla pods, it’s now more expensive than silver (pictured, file photo)

In part, this has been driven by the recent explosion in international demand for all things vanilla — pods, extract, paste, salt and yes, even caviar.

The popularity of home baking is to blame — and our own Nigella is culpable. Who can forget her famous vanilla cake and her obsession with vanilla sugar (a jar of sugar with a vanilla pod in it for flavouring).

But vanilla is also incredibly versatile, so as well as being used to flavour ice cream, tarts, cakes, chocolates, yoghurts and drinks, many chefs use it in savoury dishes — to balance out the acidity in tomato sauces and salsas and with red meat, smoked fish and especially lobster. (Cook Sophie Grigson does a splendid vanilla chicken with peppers and white wine. )

Parfumiers, meanwhile, know that vanilla ‘notes’ are hugely popular in scents and cologne with both men and women. That’s no surprise, given that scientific research shows that, as well as being the closest scent there is to breast milk, vanilla is the most universally attractive smell.

And then there are its health benefits; it’s anti-inflammatory, rich in vitamin B, and possesses powerful liver-protective qualities.

So, popularity is a big factor, but the rocketing price is mostly to do with the catastrophic run of bad luck suffered by poor, beleaguered farmers on the East African island of Madagascar — where more than 80 per cent of the world’s vanilla is grown (it also grows in Papua New Guinea, Uganda and India).

In the past year, more than a third of their plantations have been devastated by a combination of drought, disease and Cyclone Enawo, which destroyed the vines. (A vine takes four to five years to mature.)

Vanilla pods come from the vanilla orchid — which is the only orchid plant that produces an edible fruit

Then, with supply low, demand high and prices spiralling, organised criminal gangs have muscled in. Vanilla raids by armed gangs are now so frequent that desperate farmers have started sleeping among the vines to guard their harvest.

Last month, a thief who tried to steal vanilla plants was stoned to death in one village. In March, five vanilla thieves were hacked to death by a group of farmers. Neither are isolated events.

Meanwhile, faced with the loss of their livelihood, many farmers are harvesting early — before the vanilla seeds have fully matured. Which means they are of poor quality, dry and shrivelled.

From the start, the odds were always stacked against this heavenly spice ever being a commercial crop; it is high maintenance in the extreme and very vulnerable to the weather.

A £10 avocado pud, anyone?

Holy guacamole! First Spanish foodies created a low-fat avocado. Then M&S started selling stoneless versions of the fruit.

Now an avo-aficionado has created the ‘avo-lato’ for those who even want an avo-hit for dessert. 

The dairy-free vegan pud is made of 60 per cent hass avocado contained in a frozen avocado shell and served with a dollop of stone-coloured nut-butter ice cream. 

According to creator Silvia Gaetta, ‘it’s not just a new flavour, it is a form of art’, which might explain why it costs almost a tenner.

Where can you get one? At London branches of a gelataria called Snowflake, of course.

The pods come from the vanilla orchid — which is the only orchid plant that produces an edible fruit — and each vanilla flower opens for a small part of one day only. If it is not pollinated at exactly the right moment, no pod will form.

In its country of origin, which was Mexico and not Madagascar, the tiny Melipona bee did the pollinating.

Despite initial excitement after the Conquistadors introduced it to the rest of the world, interest waned after it became clear that without that busy little bee, the vanilla orchid couldn’t be pollinated and so wouldn’t fruit.

That was that, for more than 300 years until ‘hand-pollination’ was discovered, a process in which each orchid is monitored for that brief moment of flowering and then is dabbed with a tiny stick brushed with pollen from another orchid. It is another eight or nine months before the pods are ready to harvest.

After that, the ‘curing’ process begins. Each pod is soaked in hot water, wrapped in woollen blankets for 48 hours and then stored in a wooden box to ‘sweat’.

Every day, each pod is removed from the box and laid out to dry in the sun, but for one hour only. Every day, that is, for six months.

Not surprisingly, before the recent surge in prices, many producers had given up, abandoning their vanilla plantations because the returns weren’t worth it.

Now, though, everyone wants to buy it and the U-turn has been nothing short of extraordinary. And, as with any price bubble, the crooks and chancers are circling.

Commodity middlemen have started hoarding vanilla to push prices still higher, while Mafia gangs trading illegally in rosewood, one of the world’s most valuable timbers and the most trafficked ‘wild’ commodity, now buy up vanilla in order to launder money. In Madagascar alone, rosewood sales are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, the financial pressure to produce vanilla is threatening Madagascar’s ecosystem. Trees are being felled in the island’s national parks — supposedly protected and home to many endangered species — as areas are cleared for vanilla cultivation.

All in all, these little pods have a big impact. So, before you complain about missing out on vanilla ice cream, spare a thought for the farmers of Madagascar —and perhaps settle for a strawberry cone instead.


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