LONDON - The world is facing a vanilla pod shortage due to poor harvests in Madagascar, after a cyclone hit the country in March.
Cyclone Enawo destroyed a substantial part of Madagascar's vanilla plantations, which reduced production rates by 30 per cent on the island. Considering the fact that 80 per cent of the world's vanilla is produced in Madagascar, it is no wonder then that the price of vanilla pods has soared by up to 500 per cent. Vanilla is now officially a luxury item as the price per kilo has risen recently from US$175 (S$238) to a staggering US$700.
In turn, this has resulted in a vanilla ice-cream shortage in the United Kingdom, The Independent newspaper reported.
The nation's favourite flavour is already out of stock for the foreseeable future in some of the capital's gelato stores, with one shop in Chiswick, West London, posting a sign telling customers that an "unprecedented" vanilla pod shortage was to blame.
Natural disasters are not the only thing to blame, The Independent report added. It quoted Phillippe Chalmin, an economic history professor, as saying that also to blame is the haphazard and disorganised approach in the Madagascan market to this prized produce.
It does not help that vanilla is one of the most labour-intensive foods to produce. It is taken from the seed of an orchid and, as the spice is grown in Madagascar where there are no natural pollinators, has to be extracted by hand with a very small stick. Even after that, it can take months for the seed pods to fully cure.
The Independent report also quoted Gerry Newman, co-owner of a baking company in Vancouver who has been forced to change some of his recipes, as saying that he is worried about the plantations as they are not certified organic, nor fair trade.
Calling vanilla “gold”, Antoinette patisserie's chef-owner Pang Kok Keong, 42, tells The Straits Times that prices for vanilla have been increasing over the years, even before the cyclone hit. He says that about three years ago, it cost $85 for 200g of vanilla. Now, it costs $185 for 250g.
“Our prices have remained the same,” says chef Pang, “we have absorbed the cost”.
Singapore's ice cream parlour Creamier and its sister brand Sunday Folks has also been hit. Its co-owner Khoh Wan Chin, 40, says that vanilla cost has "increased by 50 per cent over two periods within the later half of last year".
She adds: "Since 2015, Creamier’s Madagascan vanilla ice cream (which includes the use of French cream and Singapore eggs) has been priced as a Premium flavour, which is quite hard for some consumers to understand as most expect vanilla to be the cheapest flavour as they are not aware of the cost of real vanilla.
"At Sunday Folks, we have withdrawn the sale of freshly-churned vanilla ice cream as it is not very popular and we do not want to comprise with using a cheaper substitute."
Similarly in the UK, the soaring price of vanilla pods is already having a huge impact on British retailers, particularly smaller outlets with less resources for whom the price has become too much to grapple with.
“The price has gone up 500 per cent in the last year, all due to a few large middlemen keeping the stock and forcing prices even higher,” explained a Chiswick outpost of the popular gelato chain Oddono’s.
Vanilla has been the most popular ice cream flavour in the UK for decades, according to the Ice Cream Alliance, but it looks like the shortage will have Britons reaching for riskier alternatives that many cutting-edge gelato shops now offer, think basil, olive oil and beetroot.