04 September 2017
As a kid I never lost my love for vanilla ice cream. For all that it was dismissed as ‘plain’, I still enjoyed something about it. Even though, in retrospect, it had nothing to do with real vanilla (this was the 1970s - not much was real in British food at that time - and certainly not in the plastic tubs of soft-scoop ice cream that we always had in the freezer), it still seemed better than people thought.
Nowadays, we have rediscovered the joys of proper vanilla. And that means proper Madagascan vanilla, where you can see little dark flecks in whatever you’re eating which is the sign that there are actual tiny vanilla seeds in there. Get a good kick of the real stuff, and you’ll marvel that anyone could ever have dismissed it as ‘boring’. In truth, it’s one of the most multi-layered tastes around, with over 200 different flavour compounds making up its true richness. It couldn’t be more different to whatever I had, which probably relied solely on artificially created vanillin - just one component.
Not only that, but vanilla is an important part of other flavours, namely chocolate, strawberry and coconut. It adds creaminess and counters bitterness.
However, the realities behind vanilla are fragile and complex. How fragile has recently been restated, with the news of how bad the 2017 harvest has been (thanks to cyclones - the vanilla-growing area of Madagascar is particularly prone to them and this year we had Cyclone Enwao - an horrific weather event that left 78 people dead and over 100,000 homeless). Awful though it was, if one event can lead to such a profound impact on world supply, that’s your first hint that not all might be well. More on that in a moment.
There are several different types of vanilla, Madagascan, Mexican and Tahitian, but it is indeed Madagascan vanilla that is the leader by a country mile. It is the most fully flavoured, the most intense, the most complex. It comes from planiforia - or ‘Bourbon’ vanilla. Good folk with discriminating palates have done all the taste trials and found that Mexican vanilla - with all due respect since it was Mexico that first gave us the gorgeous stuff on account of the fact that it was only one species of indigenous bee that could pollinate the orchid flowers involved - is smokey and Tahitian vanilla is more scent and less taste on the tongue. Vanilla is now also available from India. I succumbed to some smart marketing for Indian vanilla some years ago, and ended up with a fragrant package of 50 vanilla pods, which seemed a huge bounty. Except they didn’t deliver on flavour. More than thirty were eventually discarded as I turned back to the more expensive sources that were worth using.
And whereas the production of most other things so fine have achieved a degree of scale in keeping with its popularity, vanilla simply hasn’t. Small farmers in Madagascar still pollinate the flowers by hand. And it takes a lot to produce a little. Namely 600 hand-pollinated blossoms produce approximately 1kg of the final cured beans. And newly planted vines take four years to reach maturity.
In theory, the vanilla crop is completely sustainable. The world’s second most-expensive spice comes from an orchid that has no major impact on the environment, at least not at the scale at which it’s grown. And even though the appetite for real vanilla has shot up in recent years, not least because of companies that use vanilla flavouring such as Nestlé making commitments to move away from ‘artificial ingredients’, it should still be possible to provide all the world needs without creating major environmental problems.
But as ever, it’s the human elements that come most to the fore. And the human elements in vanilla production are … problematic.
The spice may be expensive in the shops, but vanilla farmers generally struggle with poverty. Madagascar remains one of the poorest countries in the world. As a result, many of them get trapped in cycles of debt because they take out loans from the industry’s middlemen in advance of each year’s crop - and then find themselves in real trouble when the crop delivers less than expected. When prices are high and the crops are more valuable, then theft becomes a real issue. And perverse incentives lead some of them to respond by harvesting vanilla pods too early, which impacts on the quality of the product just as the prices are hitting their peak.
And because of the poverty, child labour has become endemic on many of the farms. Indeed, a few years ago it was estimated that something like 20,000 children were estimated to work on vanilla production - more than 30% of the overall vanilla workforce. And because of the fact the crop is generally bought by middlemen who mix all the crop together, traceability is near to impossible.
You can get Fairtrade vanilla, but conditions make this difficult. There have been times when the price of vanilla on the open market has gone so low that the Fairtrade differential has been massively more - making it highly unattractive (which just shows how far below subsistence wages the price has been at those points). When prices go up, Fairtrade becomes more viable, but with so little traceability and so much of the business going through middlemen, there is a whole layer of difficult infrastructure that needs to be created to make it work.
Will the world sort itself out when it comes to vanilla? Hopefully. The bigger buyers have to take more of an interest and responsibility is what happens in their supply chain right down to the micro-farmer level. It’s difficult to do, for sure. Hope comes in the form of the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative, a voluntary industry initiative that brings together 20 of the major buying companies on a mission to improve vanilla growers livelihoods by improving traceability, labour rights and providing technical assistance to improve growing techniques.
Vanilla beans should be moist and supple when you buy them. When you open the pack, the aroma should be heady. Vanilla extract should come in an amber-coloured bottle (light is the enemy of vanilla flavour) and you should try to find sources that turn over a reasonable quantity, so you get the newest batch possible.
You don't use vanilla in big quantities in baking, let's face it - so really you can pay for the good stuff and know that you're avoiding the worst of the problems described in the section above. And you'll get some great flavours to boot.
Some producers offer Fairtrade and / or organic vanilla. Steenbergs were (according to them) the first company to offer organic fair-trade vanilla from organic farmers in Madagascar.
I most recently ordered a pack of organic Fairtrade vanilla from Ndali - the remarkable initiative founded by Lulu Sturdy on her uncle’s run-down Ugandan estate. The quality is attested to by all manner of household-name British chefs, and it’s the source of vanilla for Waitrose and Ben & Jerry’s - both companies as uncompromising on their ethics as they are on quality.
Cooking with vanilla
If you can’t be bothered with fiddly black pods and their luscious load of gooey seeds, then make sure you buy vanilla extract - which is the real stuff - as opposed to ‘vanilla essence’ or ‘vanilla flavour’ which is artificially derived flavours - as pale a shadow as you’re likely to find. Sadly - for all the very good reasons detailed above - you’ll know the real thing best by looking at the price differential.
Vanilla is obviously used most in desserts - and it is absolutely at its best with cream, whether in the form of a delicious custard or a set pudding. The vanilla pods are often soaked in hot cream to get the extra elements of their flavour out. The volatile flavour elements are more soluble in fat or alcohol than they are in water - hence the cream (and why vanilla extract has an alcohol base).
That said, don’t close your mind to the possibility of savoury uses. Most recently, I followed the direction of at least half a dozen recipes I’d seen suggesting a savoury vanilla sauce to go with mild fish - in this case Sea Bass. I cooked it, and it was delicious. One of my favourite things this year. And various people say that adding a little vanilla to mashed potato adds a whole other level of flavour. I haven’t tried that one yet. Pork and lobster are other components reputedly enhanced by a little vanilla magic.
To keep vanilla beans moist and plump, store them in airtight bags in a cool, dark place. If I buy a significant batch, I'll use my trusty sous vide vacuum sealer to leave packs of two pods air-free. In the absence of such helpful technology, just make sure you fully seal the bags as well as you can. Don't keep vanilla in the fridge, though. It doesn't help, and might encourage mould.
Lots of sites will tell you that when you've used vanilla beans, you should put them in a container of sugar and, within a reasonable period of time, lo and behold you have vanilla sugar. Which is all very well, but I'm not in the habit of using vanilla sugar, and I daresay you're not either. If you do make desserts with whipped cream or similar, then fine. Get the habit of making vanilla sugar, and you'll be pretty happy. If not, what you could do is chop them up and store them in a container of alcohol. Since the flavour dissolves well in alcohol, you'll eventually end up with your own vanilla extract. Bear in mind that commercial vanilla extracts are stronger than you'll make using this method, so adjust quantities accordingly.
If you have vanilla extract, store them in a cool dark place as well. Generally they will keep well for between 1 to 3 years.
You can find out more about the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative here: