Cyclone Enawo, which displaced 500 000 people as it hit the Madagascan coast in March this year is partly to blame. It also hit the stockpiles of middlemen already putting a squeeze on a desperate international vanilla market.
As it stands Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla in the world and accounts for about half of the global output but some local suppliers have already been switching to alternatives.
“We did start using Ugandan vanilla a few years ago as a substitute,” says Amanda Maidman of Umhlali’s Scoop Handmade Ice Cream, which has 5 different vanilla varieties on their menu at any time. “It is also beautifully fragrant and delicious! I sometimes worry that perhaps the vanilla stocks will be depleted and then we've got a problem. Who wants an ice cream range that doesn't include vanilla?”
Many local ice creameries have had to come up with ways to beat the pinch. In fact, The Creamery in Cape Town famously does not serve a vanilla ice cream and instead serves a sweet cream ice cream flavour instead, which is a blend of cream, milk and buttermilk combined with egg yolks, sugar and sea salt. They went this route rather than to compromise on their measure of quality and using alcohol based extract or essence. They still use vanilla regularly in their hot raspberry vanilla cookies available only at their Mouille Point Café and sometimes in their ice cream on special occasions.
“We would rather make smaller batches of a specific flavour, and really make a fuss over it. This is what we do with melktert ice cream, which we only make once a year for Heritage Day Weekend. Our customers are as excited as we are to see it back in our scoop counters.”
Other makers such as Peta Frysh of Johannesburg’s Pete's Super Natural Ice-Cream use a number of techniques to squeeze all the flavour they can get out of the pods. This includes storing the mixture for a day or so before churning, allowing flavours further time to seep in; and immersing washed used pods in a dedicated vat of sugar, used for the vanilla ice cream only. Frysh also insists that since there are no eggs in his ice cream to interfere with the vanilla, the flavour is more pronounced.
“Profits are no longer what they were, but there seems to be a huge increase in interest in the flavour,” says Frysh. “It now rivals Popcorn Cream with Torched Marshmallows for our most popular flavour position, so it is balancing out quite well.
At the end of the day Frysh believes that you can’t compare the flavour of pure vanilla and it’s worth all the extra effort and cost.
“I would honestly rather not make it than put 'seeds' or paste or powder into the ice cream.”
It’s sentiment shared by Amanda Maidman:
“I must admit, a couple of months ago I had a minor internal panic and decided we should look at reducing the range of vanillas on the menu, in an effort to control costs, but it didn't last long. We are well known for having an array of flavours on offer so I decided to take a big gulp and swallow the cost.”
It may not always be possible for independent makers like Frysh and Maidman to do so. According to the Financial Times there is already a growing trend overseas of makers dropping the flavour from their offering.
So we suggest that this summer you take full advantage of this possibly soon to be rare commodity and eat all the vanilla ice cream you can get your hands on. Tell your summer body diet that’s an order.
Here are some of the best places to do just that:
Paul’s Homemade Ice Cream, Rosebank Mall
His Madagascan vanilla is just that and made with a combo of bean and extract. This is the perfect one to start your vanilla journey with up north - if you can tear yourself away from his Birthday Cake flavour that is.