The tasty story of vanilla

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All that quarantine cooking and baking has been a godsend for at least one business you probably hadn’t considered: vanilla. It’s a key ingredient in cakes and cookies (not to mention ice cream and even Coca-Cola). In recent months, global sales of vanilla have doubled.Which gives new relevance to a story correspondent Seth Doane was working on even before the pandemic, a story that took him thousands of miles into the rainforests of Madagascar, the isolated African island nation where a pale white orchid has a most colorful history. .

Josephine Lochhead is not only an admirer of the factory, but she runs the Cook Flavoring Company, her family business in California that has been making vanilla extract for over 100 years.

“It makes my heart swoon!” She said of the factory. “I love vanilla! ”

This spring, Cook’s saw an astonishing 500% increase in sales. They import, literally, tons of raw material.

Growing and harvesting vanilla takes a lot of work. Each of the vanilla orchid flowers must be pollinated by hand, before noon on the day it blooms. “We call her the ‘Queen of the Rainforest’,” Lochhead said.

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A vanilla orchid. CBS News

And this queen demands constant attention.

But if Madagascar provides 80% of the world’s vanilla, it does not originate from this island. “Mexico is the only place in the world where vanilla was grown, and it was the only place in the world that has a pollinator, the only bee that will pollinate a vanilla orchid,” said Lochhead.

So when French settlers brought this vine to the area in the 1500s, it did not produce vanilla for centuries. Then, in the 1850s, the story goes that a slave named Edmond Albius discovered a method of manual pollination, with a small stick shaped like a toothpick.

A farmer named Behmanmanjar showed how Doane, exposing the female part of the stem, hidden by a membrane. Now the flower is pollinated; just wait nine months, like a baby.

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Vanilla pollination.

CBS News

“It takes time,” Behmanmanjar said. “It’s not really difficult, but it takes skill. ”

Now imagine that there are around 40 million vanilla orchids in Madagascar. So, pound for pound, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world. It is also one of the most expensive and, by weight, may sell for more than silver.

Madagascar Spices Company of Dylan Randriamihajha is Joséphine Lochhead’s largest supplier. His warehouse is guarded, surrounded by barbed wire. In order to be able to follow and trace their vanilla, the farmers “tattoo” each pod while it is still green. And once harvested, there is still work to be done: the vanilla pods are immersed in hot water to stop photosynthesis; then the drying and curing process can take months.

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Drying of vanilla pods.

CBS News

Expert hands seem to dance on the vanilla as it is sorted and massaged, releasing oils and aromas.

“The beans are affected over 2,000 times or so before they are shipped,” Randriamihaja said.

Lochhead said: “By default, Madagascar is the world producer of vanilla”.

“Why do you say” by default “? Doane asked.

“Because the wages are lower than all other wages in any vanilla producing region in the world. “

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Vanilla seeds.

CBS News

While its vanilla crop is worth around half a billion dollars, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on the planet. Most people live on around $ 50 a month.

Randriamihaja tells his workers a good salary – around $ 100 a month. And to ensure that the money earned is passed on to the workers, the profits are shared directly with the farmers. Serge Rajaobelina, originally from Madagascar, runs a cooperative of 4,000 vanilla producers. They are trying to set up systems as simple as savings accounts and as vital as health centers and schools to help these workers move forward.

“Poverty is the most difficult thing for conservation, for the environment,” said Rajaobelina. “If you don’t take care of poverty, people will look for land and they will destroy the forest. ”

Doane has witnessed this destruction hovering over vanilla territory, where farmers burn to expand their fields in the desire to escape this misery and profit from this harvest. Half of Madagascar has been deforested since 1950, threatening habitats, including that of the lemur, which only lives in the wild on this island.

The high price of vanilla in recent years has exposed other unsavory sides to this spice.

Lochhead said: “Throughout the vanilla process there is cheating, theft, theft. ”

When his precious harvest ripens, farmer Behmanmanjar will stay in his fields overnight to watch. Last year, he told us, half of his vanilla was stolen.

“I’m risking my life keeping these beans,” he says. “People could come and kill me. ”

Incredibly, more than half of those held in a prison are accused of stealing vanilla, including more than 100 children.

In the capital, Antananarivo, “Sunday Morning” brought hidden cameras to a tourist market to see how vanilla was sold at high prices. At least 10% of the vanilla ends up on the black market.

So, as you can imagine, this is why Lochhead travels thousands of miles every year, to gauge the harvest, meet the growers and examine the product, like a gourmet bean with much more subtle aromas.

ADDITIONAL WEB VIDEO: How Vanilla Beans Are Processed

Vanilla, the spice of life

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Now consider this: at least 95% of the products sold as “vanilla” do not require a farmer at all, nor do they contain real vanilla. The synthetic substance can be produced in a laboratory for 1 / 20th the cost.

But Josephine Lochhead would argue, also with a fraction of the flavor: “If synthetic vanilla was as good as pure vanilla, this would be the way to go. We wouldn’t have to go through this whole laborious, tedious and risky process. . ”

“Vanilla is a work of art,” she says. “You can’t treat it like, you know, a bag of sugar. There are so many things in it. ”

And we’d like to think that’s for sure: now, at the end of our journey, we bet you’ll never think of it as ‘regular vanilla’ again.

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Vanilla extract.

CBS News


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Story produced by Sari Aviv. Publisher: George Pozderec.

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