We’ve lived through a prosecco shortage, seen our country’s supply of croissants come under threat, and endured the Great Hummus Crisis of April 2017. And now, another of our favourite foods is at risk of (temporary) extinction.
The UK has been hit by a vanilla ice cream shortage, after a tropical cyclone caused the price of vanilla pods to soar around the world.
Several gelato shops in London are already out of stock of vanilla ice cream, according to a report by The Independent, with one store in Chiswick telling customers that the pod shortage was “unprecedented”.
The devastating Cyclone Enawo hit the island of Madagascar – where 80% of the world’s vanilla is produced – in March. At least 38 people are known to have died in the storm, with another 180 injured and some 53,000 displaced from their homes.
The storm also destroyed large swathes of Madagascar’s plantations, prompting the cost of vanilla to rise by up to 500%. The sweet spice is now out of reach for many ice cream makers in the UK.
In a notice to customers, Oddono’s Gelati shop in Chiswick said that they would be out of vanilla ice cream until new crops from Madagascar became available.
“[The bad weather in Madagascar] has resulted in very low quality vanilla pods being available on the market,” explain Oddono’s owners. They also blamed vanilla’s skyrocketing price on “a few large middlemen keeping the stock and forcing prices even higher”.
But it’s not just Cyclone Enawo that’s to blame for the high cost of vanilla. The expense can also be attributed to the fact that real vanilla pods are incredibly labour-intensive to produce, as well as the growing demand for natural products.
Vanilla beans are the seeds of an orchid that grows wild in Mexico – and the plant’s native pollinators don’t exist in Madagascar. As a result, the Madagascan vanilla production process is painstaking and time-consuming.
Jürg Brand, who owns a Madagascar-based vanilla business, tells NPR that “every flower of the orchid has to be fertilised by hand, with a little stick”.
The pod then has to be wrapped in woollen blankets for 48 hours and put in a wooden box to sweat, before being laid out in the sun for just one hour each day.
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For years, many major food companies didn’t bother using genuine vanilla pods in their ice cream, preferring to use a cheaper synthetic chemical compound called vanillin. But as consumers around the world increasingly turn away from artificial flavouring in food in search of more natural ingredients, the popularity of real vanilla beans has risen.
Major ice cream companies with significant financial clout are unlikely to be affected by the vanilla bean shortage for now – and they can also simply rely on vanillin as a synthetic alternative.
But if you like buying your ice cream from independent, artisan gelaterias, you might have to wait a while to get your hands on two scoops of vanilla.