You probably don’t know this (and kudos if you did), but that bottle of pure vanilla extract in your pantry originated from an orchid, Vanilla planifolia, growing on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
And although this delicious spice is widely thought to be native to that island, i.e. Madagascar, it is actually endemic to Mexico, where Hernándo Cortés was introduced to the vanilla bean by the Aztec emperor Montezuma in 1520. The Spanish also gave the pods the name by which we call them today, “vaynilla,” meaning “little pod.”
Still, it was the French who really popularized the spice in the nineteenth century. Until then, vanilla remained an exotic curiosity from far-off lands. Attempts to cultivate it outside its native habitat met with failure in the absence of its natural pollinators, the hummingbird and the Melipona bee.
All that changed when Edmond Albius, a former slave on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, figured out how to pollinate the orchid by hand, an extremely labor-intensive process. (Rather like semi-conductor chips, hand-pollination is best done by the petites mains of women and children.)
Shrewd French entrepreneurs then hit upon the idea of vanilla cultivation in Madagascar, where the climate was favorable and more importantly, labor cheap and plentiful. Mexico was overtaken by Madagascar and the rest, as they say, is history.
The story doesn’t end there, however. In 2000, Madagascar was hit by a devastating cyclone, causing severe damage to its vanilla crop. With the ensuing supply crunch, the world price of vanilla skyrocketed to $500 a kilogram.
At these prices, other countries wanted in on the action: enter India (Kerala and Karnataka) and Indonesia (Java), both blessed with similar climates and an abundance of cheap labor. Also muscling in on the action: a new type of synthetic vanilla that came close to tasting like the original.
With all the new producers flooding the market, vanilla prices dropped so precipitously that within a few years of introducing the plant, the farmers who had been persuaded to grow the crop by government bodies and private investors decided that it wasn’t worth their time anymore.
A similar series of events is behind the high price of vanilla at the current moment. This time, the problem is compounded by gangs smuggling protected rosewood out of Madagascar, possibly to China, and laundering the proceeds by buying up vanilla, which they can then sell on the open market.
With the high price of vanilla, producers have been rushing to get the product to the market even before it is ready, damaging the reputation of Madagascar vanilla in the process. The government has now blocked exports of immature green vanilla, further reducing supply.
Meanwhile, seeing the dollar signs, farmers in India and other developing countries are planting vanilla once more.
And so, the boom and bust cycle repeats itself.
What I’m telling you is, there’s nothing vanilla about vanilla.