Under a vanilla sky

Spice it up (clockwise) Hand pollination is the trick when it comes to growing vanilla; women at the sorting facility in Pollachi; saplings at the facility  

Pollachi, with its parched fields, gasping rivers and withering trees, seems like an unlikely setting for a revival. Till you meet the town’s burgeoning population of vanilla farmers.

This is a small community, subsisting mainly on coconut and sugar cane. With the shadow of drought growing more ominous, farmers are constantly on the lookout for practical ways to supplement income. Vanilla has proved to be an unexpected redeemer. On the surface, it seems like a reckless gamble. After all, the plant is foreign and intimidatingly unfamiliar. Besides, India’s last big vanilla experiment failed more than a decade ago. Dig deeper and you’ll realise that, this time, these farmers are at the cusp of a flavour revolution.

Real vs fake

About 99% of the vanilla used all over the world is synthetic. However, there has been a steadily growing interest in real vanilla, which has 250 named compounds that contribute to its intriguing flavour, making it impossible to replicate. Admittedly, synthetic vanilla, made from a petrochemical source, and imitation vanilla (called nature identical), created by extracting vanillin from wood pulp, rice bran and clove oil, cost significantly less. But they lack the gently-nuanced flavour and complex fragrance of natural extract.

Under a vanilla sky

Real vanilla costs about ₹25,000 for a kilo of cured beans in today’s world market. That’s about ₹8,000 for a litre of double-strength pure vanilla extract. Imitation vanilla is about ₹1,500 a litre. Prices fluctuate constantly, depending on demand and supply.

Right now, demand exceeds supply: hence the stratospheric prices. Of the 2,500 tonnes of processed beans available annually, 75% comes from Madagascar, where a cyclone wiped out about 10% of the crop last month. More importantly, big industries as well as home bakers, who consume about 25,000 tonnes of artificial vanilla a year, are beginning to switch to the real thing.

Closer home

Although vanilla extract is rumoured to be one of the cola’s industry’s secret ingredients, and is vital to high-end ice creams and gourmet cakes, it’s not just a staple for multinationals with deep pockets. Aavin’s flavoured milk incorporates real vanilla, and still manages to retail at a competitive price of ₹25 for 200 ml. And it’s delicious, packed with that intricate flavour that only the bean can give.

That glass of milk leads me to Dr R Mahendran, a practising doctor who raises horses and is at the forefront of India’s vanilla revolution. We chat over bowls of Ibaco ice cream, speckled with vanilla seeds, at his sprawling farmhouse in Pollachi. He’s currently producing vanilla for everyone from Aavin to McCormick and Symrise, the world’s largest flavour houses. Last year, he introduced the product to the domestic market, under the brand name Goodness Vanilla, and confesses that even he was startled by how successful it was.

Under a vanilla sky

Mahendran started growing the vine in 1992, and kept at it despite tempestuous price wars, convinced that the market would open up. His time has come.

“By 2014, I realised India grows the world’s best vanilla. That is: if you process it right. Compared to Madagascar and Indonesia, Indian vanilla has the highest amount of vanillin, and best compound concentration. We have the potential to fill the world’s need for vanilla,” he says.

Opportunity revisited

He calls the current revival an “opportunity revisited” because India lost out the last time there was a chance to become a significant producer.

In 2002, when a cyclone wiped out 30% of Madagascar’s plantations and prices peaked, Indian farmers jumped into the fray as international buyers desperate for the product landed here. Green beans were selling for ₹3,500 per kilo. Processed beans went for ₹25,000. Even vine cuttings were profitable, at ₹100 a metre. Farmers all over the Western Ghats started growing it.

In 2008, there were 10,000 acres of vanilla with a few thousand farmers across Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (these states provide an ideal climate for the plant). By 2005, the same beans were selling for ₹250.

Under a vanilla sky

When Madagascar bounced back, buyers — disappointed by a rash of low-quality, hurriedly-processed beans — left India. The plant was largely abandoned by farmers who said it was flimsy, delicate and high maintenance.

But Dr Mahendran kept going. The vines here are grown in loam not soil, as an inter-crop, so they have plenty of shade. It takes four years for the first crop. Then, a year and three months before a flower becomes a bean that is ready for use. This is why it is the world’s second-most expensive spice, after saffron.

What it takes to grow

At his farm, between drinking tender coconut water and picking handfuls of glossy beads of nutmeg off the ground, I get lessons on the economics of inter-cropping. We walk through sun-speckled nurseries filled with seemingly endless rows of sturdy young vines. This is the season for creamy yellow vanilla flowers which, when hand pollinated, turn into green beans. They sun-dry for three weeks, then shade-dry for six weeks, after which they are conditioned for three months in wooden boxes lined with wax paper.

Inside the vanilla processing unit, neatly-dressed women rapidly grade beans with an ease that comes from years of practice. The air is thick with a sweet, comforting scent, reminiscent of freshly baked cake. I pick up a sleek, almost-moist bean and twist it around my finger. It coils readily, and then slowly unfurls releasing an almost musky assertive fragrance: the mark of a premium Bourbon vanilla bean.

Under a vanilla sky

Brought to India by the British East India company, Bourbon vanilla is one of the most robust strains of the orchid, with a trademark creamy, sweet flavour. It’s also grown in Madagascar and Reunion Island. Some of the earliest samples of the vine are in government-run botanical stations like Courtallam and Kallar Horticultural Garden. Dr Mahendran chanced upon the vine at a research station in Myladumpara, Kerala, when the director gave him a cutting in 1992. By 1998, Dr Mahendran was exporting five tonnes of vanilla a year. By 2003, this had grown to 30 tonnes, grown in Pollachi, Karnataka and Kerala. He aims to have one million vines, via contract farming, by 2018. About 300,000 are done.

Back at the farmhouse, we watch a beautiful rag of high-spirited colts gallop around the paddocks as we settle down with generous scoops of vanilla ice cream served over jammy jackfruit halwa. The ice cream, laced with that unmistakably mellow, caramelly scent of real extract, has a delicious depth.

It’s simple, but powerful, triggering a rush of childhood memories. It tastes like a summer holiday.

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Printable version | Jun 9, 2021 7:39:36 PM |

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