It all started on an average day, my husband and I were shopping for some specific ingredients at Fresh Food Market, and as we waited for some delicious cheese to be cut and prepared for us, I laid my eyes on the second most expensive spice in the world.
“Finally!” I thought, it was the real deal. Packaged in a cheap styrofoam plate, suffocating in shrink wrap, were two beautiful, whole pods of vanilla. I rapidly grabbed the package to check the price, and as soon as I read it my heart sank. 90 EGP, for two pods. Mind you, this was even before the Egyptian pound was devaluated, and I was devastated. An urge to ask about why it was so expensive grew inside me. So I blurted …
“Why?” I asked the young man prepping the cheese. “Why is the vanilla so expensive?
“Maam, 1 kilo costs 12,000 EGP.” He looked at me with a sorry grin, then went back to what he was doing. I looked at my husband and moved on, telling myself I’ll just stick with the sad powdered version, even though there’s added sugar and all that, to me it’s more practical and it does what it’s supposed to.
Months later, I sit here in fascination, having just finished researching all about vanilla after the topic was triggered again as I listened to a podcast. I must admit, for someone who claims to understand so much about food, I’m embarrassed to even be sharing the story above. How could I not have known that even though it might not be affordable to all, there are so many reasons this beautiful spice is second to saffron when it comes to how pricey it is? There are also many reasons why it’s so rare to find in Cairo. Luckily, since I write for people who love to learn about food and don’t claim to be experts, you can read this without beating yourself up like I did.
Vanilla, also referred to as Mexico’s gift to the world, is a subdivision of the orchid family, and it’s the only edible type of orchid. Native to modern day Veracruz, vanilla was first used by the Totonics, and it was even used as currency and tribute to the Aztecs when they conquered the Totonics. The Aztecs used vanilla in a popular chocolate beverage, and in the 16th century, it was brought to Europe by the Spanish explorers and classified as a luxury ingredient, only for the noble and wealthy.
Fifty years later, vanilla gained a lot of popularity and was introduced into dessert recipes. People wanted more vanilla, but there was a problem, since supply was limited and …
*1. It Takes a Special “Birds and the Bees” Situation*
While many countries tried to cultivate the plant, somehow the orchid grew, but never bore any fruit except in Mexico. Mexico didn’t only have the perfect conditions for the vanilla beans to blossom, they also had a special Melopina bee and a long beaked hummingbird only native to South America, they were the only hope in the pollination process, as far as people knew. Even though the bees were brought to other countries, they never survived.
This is when a little 12 year old slave called Edmond Albius discovers that pollination can be done by humans, if they use a toothpick or something similar. This brings us to the next reason vanilla is so expensive.
*2. Vanilla is Labor Intensive*
Believe it or not, this is how pollination occurs until today. You see, the orchids grow on vines, they will go as far up as they can, and when the flower sprouts, there’s a very short window of 24 hours for pollination to occur, if it doesn’t this flower wilts, and it becomes impossible for it to produce fruit. However, if a bee, hummingbird (and thanks to little Edmond) a human seizes the opportunity before it wilts, gorgeous vanilla beans will start growing for the next 8-9 months, that’s as long as a human baby takes to grow in his/her mommy’s tummy. Yes, it is a long time.
So imagine the patience you have to muster up if you own a vanilla farm, visualize missing out on the limited time your plant can make a baby (sorry not sorry).
You think I’m done with the labor part? Not quite. Let’s say you’ve succeeded in the first few steps, you still have so much to do! Now it’s time to harvest your lovely produce only 1 pod from each flower. It will take you more than another month to wash the pods, sort them, cure them, and then age them. And while that already sounds like a long process, it gets even more intense since you can fail to do the above at each stage, and lose a large sum of your pods. Factor in the time and money spent to export these lovelies all around the world (and hopefully more to our beloved Cairo), and you’ll bring us to the next point.
*3. Only a Few Countries Grow Vanilla*
Okay, maybe more than a few, but because vanilla needs special conditions to grow, and a large number of people, the only countries that significantly contribute to the market are Mexico, Madagascar and Indonesia with different vanilla species. Vanilla is sought after so much in those countries, that a popular scam is to sell synthetic vanilla containing a dangerous substance called coumarin for $1-2. Remember that you get what you pay for, so keep reading if you wanna understand the market.
*4. The Vanilla Market is a Tightly Controlled Market*
You might visit the supermarket and find plenty of vanilla powder and vanilla extract, and you’re going to wonder how I just said it’s a tightly controlled market if you can find the above mentioned items. I’ll come in again with my knowledge, and tell you all about how vanilla powder, actually has nothing in common with vanilla, except that scientists found a way to chemically engineer the flavor of vanilla, and that flavor is actually called vanillin. Scientists can break down a food into its’ individual flavor components, meaning they can flavor something using orange flavor, without actually using ANY oranges, but only an exact imitation of the major flavor component in oranges, without the rest of the smaller components.
Simply said, they’re creating the exact same chemical in the real thing, without actually using any of it. It’s all about engineering. Is this a scam? No it’s not, we’re just always scared to read a label that says “artifical flavoring” even when it’s practically made of the exact same chemical elements. Does this affect the farmers selling true vanilla? Not really, both markets have co-existed for years and years. We should be a bit worried though, because …
*5. There’s a Vanilla Shortage Since 2016*
As Madagascar actually produces and exports more flavorful vanilla than Mexico does, the price surge of 150% in late 2015 caused its prices to skyrocket all around the world. The sad part is, the specie of vanilla produced by Madagascar is the one preferred to flavor vanilla ice cream (I might die without vanilla ice cream). This all happened because that year’s crop turned out to be smaller than usual. Oh, and this doesn’t only affect the foods we eat, but also vanilla scented perfumes and creams that were said to have aphrodisiac qualities at the time of the Aztecs.
*6. Vanilla and Its Health Benefits*
Last but not least, other than its contribution to making more Aztec babies in the past, vanilla has been said to have some health benefits like helping with nausea, anxiety, and irregular menstrual cycles. The research-based evidence isn’t enough to back up this case, but hey, if you’re feeling anxious, light up a vanilla scented candles and see if it works for you!