The Indian market is slowly opening up to the flavour of vanilla beans as people discover that the spice is more affordable

To be Indian is to have access to affordable luxuries. Luxuries we don't always appreciate. Traditional artisans. Tailor-made clothes. Natural vanilla.

The rest of the world might have to make do with vanilla essence, a synthetic by-product of petroleum, to flavour their cakes, cookies and milkshakes. A painstakingly grown, hand-pollinated and hand-harvested crop, vanilla is the second-most expensive spice in the world, after saffron. When Madagascar's crop failed because of cyclone in 2000, and international prices sky rocketed, Indian farmers began to plant it. Prices peaked in 2003, then Madagascar bounced back, leaving India with hectares of delicate vanilla plantations that steadily began decreasing in value. Bad for producers; good for consumers. Prices have fallen dramatically. This is the perfect time for the domestic market to flex its muscles. So why is 99 per cent of the country still using synthetic vanilla?

“Vanilla essence is a by-product of petroleum,” says Kottayam-based John P. John, CEO of Tharakan & Company, and leading exporter of Indian vanilla. “In India very few people use real vanilla. We now sell to Mother Dairy, Amul, Arun Ice cream and Milma, and even they use it only for their premium products.” He adds, however, that the market is slowly increasing as people discover the spice is more affordable. “Our natural vanilla extract, ‘Nature's Nurture' sells at Rs. 36 for a 20 gm bottle. It's Rs. 20 for the artificial essence.” At this price (provided you make sure you buy from a quality producer) Indian vanilla is possibly one of the best deals in the world right now.

Ironically, over the last few days the world markets have been buzzing with news about prices being ‘on the brink of explosion' because India and Mexico's crops have ‘failed' this year. There's talk of supplies being stockpiled and wholesale prices increasing by 20 per cent over the next couple of months, thus hitting food and drink manufacturers. However, the reality is the market is dominated by Madagascar, Indonesia and Tahiti. Put together, India and Mexico account of about 5 per cent of the world's production, of which India contributes barely one per cent.

It is true, however, that Indian vanilla is on the decline. “Farmers have neglected it because of the low prices,” says John. “In 2003 you could get Rs. 4,000 per kilo of green beans. By 2005 these same beans were selling for Rs. 250.” He reckons vanilla is a victim of its own success. By 2003, it became so expensive that buyers decided to switch to cheap artificial flavouring in their recipes, and then stuck to it.

No matter how low prices go, they will never be able to match prices of essence, because this is a labour intensive crop. “It's flimsy and needs constant attention. After four to five years, it has to be replanted. Vanilla needs three-four people per hectare, every day through the year to plant, prune, fertilise, pollinate etc. Rubber needs that many people only for harvesting.” Although growers are shifting to more practical crops, John says the quality of the vanilla that is available has not come down. “International buyers say our beans are on a par with the world. We're selling to Europe, America, Japan and Australia.”

A spokesperson from Vanilco, a venture promoted by Indian vanilla farmers to protect the long term interest of growers across the country, confirmed that production is low and going down. He says cured vanilla beans now sell at $ 30 (a little above Rs. 1,500) per kilo in the world market. Then adds that they're also available at Rs. 80.

Deepak Suresh, who runs Amadora, a gourmet ice cream boutique in Chennai, experimented with different local growers till he found beans that worked best for his signature ‘five bean vanilla ice cream,' which uses 50 beans for every ten litres of ice cream mix. “The growers I spoke to said they have an export quality, and a different quality for the Indian market,” he says, adding that he's buying the export quality for Rs. 2,000 per kilo. “I get 300 beans from that, which gives me about 90 to 100 litres of ice cream.”

Prices differ wildly, so it makes sense to shop for a deal and a bean that you really like. Philip C. Jacob, Director of the Velimalai Rubber Company, which grows vanilla at the southernmost tip of the Western Ghats, has been selling at Rs. 1,000 a kilo for the last five years. Like all the rest, his prices peaked in 2003. “I sold processed beans in Germany at Rs. 25,000 a kilo,” he says, adding, “That was the only boom. We were even selling vine cuttings at Rs. 100 per one metre then.” They had started growing vanilla in 1994, “just on a whim”. He says, “We grow hundreds of crops, just like that. Durian, lemon grass, Patchouli…”

He adds that the quality is just as good, “I sell my grade A cured beans at Rs. 1,000 now…” However, he now keeps volumes low. I know I'm going to sell about ten kilos a year, which isn't much, so that's all I harvest. At Rs. 300 a kilo, it's not even viable to go and pluck it. It doesn't help that Indian vanilla, hasn't made an impact on the international market. “No body is going to the market saying I want Indian vanilla. They want what's grown in Madagascar.”

The domestic market opening up could make a difference. Either way, this is the best time to experiment with the real thing. You don't put artificial flavouring or food colours in your meals. So why settle for an ‘essence' when you can easily afford the real thing.

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