19th March 2019
We’ve been saying it for a while now: we need to become as ethical as possible. Sure, our organic flour is good. But what about that milk in our chocolate? And where does our salt come from?
Now, becoming ethical is an ambiguous goal: ‘ethical’ doesn’t start or finish somewhere. There’s no clear point you can tick and be awarded ethical status. For us, it means to consider our actions and critically assess them. Therefore, we have to try to understand an area, form an idea of the best thing we can do in that situation, and then balance that, realistically, with the goals of a small business.
So, the first step is assessing the supply chain.
Churros are in essence, very simple, with few ingredients. Today, we’re going to be tackling the most expensive ingredient in churros: vanilla.
Now, a little background. Spanish churros don’t traditionally contain vanilla, or even any sugar. The sugar is usually dusted on at the end. If you order churros in Spain, you have to ask for the sugar on top, con azucar, por favor.
We, knowing the UK palette, think a bit of extra sugar in the churros, and some vanilla, goes a long way. And this way, you don’t have to cover the churros in so much sugar on the outside that the crunch of caster sugar detracts from the crunch of dough. Just our opinion.
Anyway – our churros contain vanilla.
The Vanilla Trade
But the vanilla world is in a bit of a pickle. The pod itself is tricky to grow. So tricky in fact, that there’s only two countries that manage to export it in any large quantities. These are Mexico, and Madagascar, with the latter exporting 80% of the world’s supply.
One reason Madagascar has become so synonymous with vanilla is because it is one of the only countries poor enough to commit to the laborious process of hand pollination.
Madagascar is a country with a per capita income of US $500. Compare the UK, for example, with US $42,000 per capita income. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world – but they happen to harvest and export the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron).
You can imagine what happens. EVERYONE wants to grow vanilla. Forget rice, cassava or sweet potatoes. Those geezers next door just made 10 bags off vanilla? I know what I’m sowing next.
So all of a sudden, there’s an influx of vanilla farmers. And people are making serious money from it. There’s even vanilla ‘barons’ seducing girls with the cold touch of new money.
But it isn’t all El Chapo up in here – there’s far more benevolent farmers making a quick buck. Unfortunately, when people make money, especially in a climate like Madagascar’s, there’s someone there to bite it.
Ninot Oclin grabbed his bolt action rifle and cocked it. He motioned over the shrubs and pointed to the clearing between two banana trees, where he had fashioned a taut twine from trunk to trunk.
The moonlight reflected through the eerie stillness of the trees and onto a machete in the hand of a man, stood on Ninot’s left. He is part of the local militia. The Independent reporter stared down at the blade and covered his eyes as the light reflected into them.
“This is the way the thieves come,” explained the farmer to the reporter, who could feel his mouth drying as he sucked saliva past the lump in his throat.
When farms are raided, the people, with little faith in a corrupt police system, band together. In late 2018, the price of vanilla surpassed silver, selling at $600 USD per kilo. Vanilla is an asset worth protecting – and the backbone to livelihoods.
Importantly, it hasn’t always been this way. In 2012, vanilla was trading at just $50 USD per kilo. So what happened?
Four bad harvests in a row, prior to 2014, catapulted the first spike in prices. The limited amount of buyers, and the now limited supply, meant extortionate prices, and in 2014, vanilla rose to $300 USD per kilo. This boom catalysed crime, which split the market in half: now black market vanilla was trading for cheaper, and official prices of vanilla, on the commodity market, continued to inflate.
Soon, the market was flooded with low quality and under-ripe vanilla because vanilla thieves tend to steal whatever they can – irrespective of quality. Therefore, ironically, the sky high price of vanilla now corresponds to the lowest quality of vanilla in recent times.
What happens next?
Or importantly, what can we do about it?
Well, a full assessment of the Madagascan vanilla trade is perhaps beyond this blog. But as buyers of vanilla, we are inclined to speculate.
In fact, it seems we are part of the problem. Because real vanilla is so expensive, almost every time you buy vanilla essence or extract, you’re buying a chemical compound that has been isolated from the vanilla pod and diluted. This product is called vanillin. Importantly, real vanilla’s flavour isn’t just from vanillin – there’s numerous other alkaloids which contribute, meaning vanillin has a vastly reduced depth of flavour. The prevalence of this product has meant that very few buyers were ever buying actual vanilla, which constricted the demand and contributed to the price hikes.
But, with the cost of real vanilla so high, what is a small business to do? For now, we can’t afford real vanilla, and we’ll continue to buy the best quality vanilla extract we can.
The point of this blog is to bring the reality of supply chains face-to-face with consumers, and hopefully, we can all think and act as ethically as possible. Churros may be simple, but the decisions we make and who we buy from never is.