Vanilla: The Story of a Bean, a Bee and a Boy

Vanilla: The Story of a Bean, a Bee and a Boy

Aarthi Parthasarathy writes about why vanilla, inspite of being the most common flavouring in the world, is more expensive than silver. 

Why is vanilla so expensive? Real, organic, natural vanilla. The extract. The essence. The bean. Why does it cost so much?

The short version of the story is that there’s a worldwide shortage of natural vanilla —  Madagascar grows over 75% of the world’s supply, and a spate of cyclones have struck the country over the last couple of years. This has greatly affected the produce of the bean and spiked its price.

Though the real question is this —  how have we, as a species, come to a point when all things natural cost more?

This brings us to the long version of the story, and the answer, as with most troubling questions, lies in history —  and in this case, in colonialism. Hundreds of years ago, Western Europeans left their countries in search of silk and spices. For some reason, even after they found them, they stayed back and took a bunch of other stuff too. 

The history of spices is often repeated, and is almost boring now. Yes, spices were the reason trade took off in the middle ages — they were the reasons for great expeditions and wars alike. Yes, pepper, ginger and turmeric were exported from here to different parts of the world. Yes, at that time, spices were purported to be more valuable than gold. Though, as Karl Sharro’s tweet that went viral points out, ‘One of the mysteries still out there is why the West colonised half of the world for spices and they still don't know how to use them’.

In one such expedition of exchange, vanilla was brought to India by the British East India Company and the Portuguese. Vanilla is an orchid which grows as a vine — it is the only fruit-bearing member of the orchid family. It is native to South and Central America, though it grows well in India because of similarities in climate and other conditions. The species that grows here is the Bourbon vanilla, a very robust and flavourful cultivar of the plant that thrives in tropical Indian climate.

I learned all this during a six-month sabbatical spent learning organic farming at the Mojo Plantation in Coorg, which, in addition to coffee, cardamom and pepper, also cultivates vanilla. Upon reaching there, I was told that one of my tasks would be to pollinate the vanilla grown there. I learned that the primary natural pollinators of the vanilla, the melipona bee, are native only to Mexico, and are now nearly extinct. Vanilla grown anywhere else in the world has to be pollinated by hand — with a practice developed by a 12-year-old African slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion Islands back in 1841.

Edmond Albius

Edmond Albius

Albius managed to do what many botanists and planters could not do for years — he figured how to manually pollinate vanilla by using a stick or a blade of grass along with one’s hands to push the male and female parts of the flower together.

The vanilla bean results from the pollination of the flower — one flower produces one precious bean. Each flower blooms in the morning and closes late in the afternoon on the same day, never to re-open. The ideal time for pollination is between 6 am and 1 pm and so every morning, the other pollinators and I, doing the work of bees or hummingbirds, would walk through the plantation, looking for fresh flowers. Not the worst job.

I would sometimes remember the story of Edmond Albius, whose method I was employing on my rounds — a young, black child — a slave, who made such a monumental discovery, who died in poverty but was responsible for an eventual multi-million-dollar industry. Until he came up with his method for artificial pollination, many efforts were made by French botanists and horticulturists, but with no luck.  

As you can imagine, his discovery did cause a certain amount of jealousy among the community in the region — the botanist Jean-Michel-Claude Richard declared that he had, in fact, taught Albius this technique a few years ago. The French press even went to the extent of claiming that Edmond Albius was white.

A white flower, a black bean and such a colourful yet dark history.

Vanilla plant, illustration

Several methods exist in the market for curing or ripening vanilla. However, all of them consist of four basic steps: killing, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning of the beans. In this plantation, the beans are ‘killed’ by blanching in hot water for five minutes, after which they are made to sweat wrapped in cloth, then dried in the sun over a few days — this is when they develop a brown-black colour. Conditioning is performed by storing the pods for five to six months in closed boxes, where the fragrance develops. After nearly a year from the flowering of the orchid, the finished beans are ready, either to be packaged as they are, or treated to be made into an extract or essence. This process, being so laborious and time-intensive, is responsible for the high cost of natural vanilla. Capitalism, however, would not let this be. Science intervened and found a way.

Vanillin is essentially the prominent compound that gives vanilla its distinctive aroma. Natural vanilla extract consists of at least 250 different compounds in addition to vanillin. Artificial vanilla flavouring is often a solution of pure vanillin, usually of synthetic origin. It is derived from less expensive sources, including wood and paper pulp, clove oil, pine bark, coal tar, bran, even cow dung (Yes, that’s what you’re eating). Therefore, 99% of the world’s vanilla, most of what we now consume — in ice creams, cakes, flavoured milk and so on — is lab-made.

Vanillin has been on the market since the late 19th century and there has been no indication that it is a health risk. So, does it make a difference whether we consume natural or synthetic?

Our society oscillates between celebrating scientific innovation and old-world wisdom, and food is a domain where this plays out rather ferociously. The organic and GMO lobbies have been at loggerheads over this question, with no consensus in sight. This question, after all, involves economies, governments, industries, farmers, consumers and climate.

What is the future of food; what kind of food will people be able to access, and how? At the end of this story, we see that synthetic vanilla is ubiquitous, and natural vanilla is expensive — and maybe that is the answer to the big question.

Aarthi Parthasarathy is a Bangalore-based filmmaker and writer. She is also known for creating the webcomic Royal Existentials and writing for the comic series Urbanlore.