Exotic new vanilla crop could put Florida on world spice map
Miami — Vanilla has an undeserved reputation for being blah, as in plain vanilla, the flavor for people who consider chocolate too daring.
The truth is a vanilla bean is exotic — the only edible fruit of the orchid family — and an essential ingredient in a host of everyday favorites.
Most natural vanilla comes from Madagascar, or a few other foreign locations, and demand far outstrips supply. Flavoring companies are willing to pay as much as $270 per pound because it’s just so important.
But University of Florida scientists believe South Florida has promise as a place to grow the plants that produce one of the world’s most popular flavors.
“Vanilla likes it humid, vanilla likes it hot, so South Florida is a great location for this crop,” said Alan Chambers, an assistant professor of horticultural sciences at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Tropical Research and Education Center.
For the past three years Chambers has been growing over 100 vanilla varieties and testing for yield, resistance to disease and flavor. He is now offering South Florida growers information on how to start a crop that could potentially rival the quality of vanilla from Madagascar, where more than 70% of global supply is produced.
Over the next few years, the hope is that South Florida could become a niche market, supplying restaurants, bakers and other local businesses with locally grown vanilla.
Already, 90 growers have contacted Chambers to learn the secrets to a flavor that is anything but basic, starting with how it’s produced. Vanilla flowers only bloom one day a year for just a few hours, and they must be pollinated by hand to produce the beans.
Once harvested, the beans — which look like string beans when green — must be dipped in hot water and dried. They are wrapped in wool blankets and stored in airtight containers, which are stored in a warm place for about two weeks. Then the beans must be dried in the sun for as long as two months. The process is all manual and a lot can go wrong.
The small production of natural vanilla concentrated in just one country is a key reason why prices are sometimes higher than the cost of silver. Vanilla prices can vary widely due to the plant’s unpredictable pollination results, a lack of infrastructure to guarantee constant production and extreme weather events like cyclones that every now and then wipe out crops in Madagascar.
Demand for natural vanilla is growing as more food and flavoring companies pledge to stop using artificial flavors in response to consumer pressure. In 2015, a series of giant food companies including Nestlé, Kellogg’s, Hershey’s and General Mills promised to eliminate the use of artificial vanillin — the easily-available synthetic version of vanilla — from foods sold in the U.S.
Vanilla extract, produced by soaking cured vanilla beans in alcohol, is widely used in baking and food flavoring, but it has other applications. It’s used as a natural anti-microbial remedy and it’s being tested as a treatment against the blood disease sickle-cell anemia. In the cosmetics industry, perfumers add vanilla to make fragrances sweet and romantic.