Farmer from a fair trade cooperative in the SAVA region on the eastern edge of Madagascar

Canton Chocolate Noir and the vanilla dilemma

In 2018 the price of Madagascan vanilla, a key component in Canton Chocolate Noir tea and the vanilla of all vanillas, briefly exceeded the price of silver. This presented us with a dilemma – should we compromise on quality to hit our target cost?

Due to the rainfall, climate, and specific quality of its soil, Madagascan or Bourbon vanilla is renowned to be the best in the world and is favoured by the world’s best pastry chefs. Flavour? Think sweet-toffee and liquorice. The island was the world's biggest producer of this precious ingredient but in March 2017, Cyclone Enawo hit Madagascar, destroying most of the crop for the year. This had a devastating effect on the growers of Madagascar and caused a worldwide shortage of vanilla. And because it takes 3-4 years for vanilla vines to establish and start cropping, this shortage is set to continue over the next couple of years.

Left: Madagascan vanilla beans growing on plant. Right: the vanilla pods after being dried and sorted.

When Canton Chocolate Noir was first created in 2013 as a limited edition tea, we were paying £80/kg for our vanilla. This year the price spiked at £485/kg for the same grade. So, do we compromise on quality or find another way?

The easiest and cheapest solution would have been to source an artificial vanilla flavouring. But this option was a compromise too far and was never on the table. Like all our teas, Canton Chocolate Noir has always been and will always be 100% natural. So we experimented with the recipe a bit, reducing the vanilla content and increasing the sweet cocoa-rich Yunnan Black element. But we just didn’t get that bewitching rush of chocolate-vanilla deliciousness when we opened the bag for the first time. We tried a lower grade vanilla, but again no joy. So in the end the decision was clear – the recipe had to stay the same and Canton would absorb the price increase in order to maintain the integrity of the blend. We’re optimistic that as Madagascar recovers from the cyclone over the next few years, the price will slowly stabilise.

Canton vanilla

Canton sources its vanilla from a fair trade cooperative of farmers in the SAVA region on the eastern edge of Madagascar, consisting of around 100 smallholders. The co-operative produce the highest quality vanilla in the traditional way, painstakingly pollinating each individual vanilla orchid by hand, and then handpicking, sun-drying and hand sorting.

Left: vanilla orchid being pollinated by hand. Right: women in Madagascar sorting the dried vanilla pods.

Canton Chocolate Noir is an exclusive Canton blend of Assam and Yunnan Black tea, Madagascan vanilla and Peruvian cocoa nibs. Available as loose leaf tea and pyramid tea bags here.

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