A Little Bit Vanilla
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Cultivated in hot climates with high heat and high humidity, vanilla is second only to saffron in terms of spice value. Like saffron, the harvesting of vanilla is manual and labor intensive. The vanilla flower opens just one day every year, and is pollinated by just one species of bee. The vanilla bean is so picky that when cultivated in greenhouses in foreign lands, it would not produce a single bean without its beloved Melipona bee.
However, in 1841, a young boy discovered a precise and painstaking technic of hand pollinating the flowers. So successful was the process that nearly all commercially produced vanilla to this day is hand pollinated. It bears repeating, since every flower only yields one bean, that almost every bean on the market today was pollinated by hand.
It should come as no surprise that vanilla production in no way meets vanilla demand. With an estimated yearly production of approximately 2,000 metric tons, vanilla substitute is conversely produced to the tune of 20,000 metric tons annually. Remarkably complex, vanilla was not used as anything but an additive (mainly for chocolate) until the early 1600’s when Queen Elizabeth I fell in love with a candy her apothecary created using, as the saying goes, plain vanilla.
Today, the price for natural vanilla is around $300.00 a pound. Saffron, for comparison, starts at around $500.00 a pound, and Burgundy Black Truffles are currently averaging $400.00 a pound. The Sustainable Vanilla Initiative was launched in 2015 in an effort to promote “the long-term stable supply of high-quality, natural vanilla that is produced in a socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable way.” An important initiative for an ingredient found in over 18,000 products on the market today, Queen Elizabeth the I would be pleased.