Vanilla … Anything But Plain

Since we’re in the throes of holiday flavors, let’s talk vanilla.

I recently wrote a piece for Edible SLO magazine about the R.R. Lochhead Manufacturing Co. in Paso Robles. (A link to the article is below.) Founded in 1963, this family-owned and –operated vanilla processing company sells its products under the Cook’s Vanilla brand, and it’s likely you have a bottle or two in your pantry.

If not, if the only vanilla you know is the artificial vanilla flavoring we all grew up with, you owe it to yourself to try the deal real. There’s a vast difference in taste, and – more importantly – quality. Some artificial vanilla flavorings are made with chemically treated by-products from the paper industry. Is that what you want in your Christmas sugar cookies?

My Edible SLO article talks about the arduous and tedious process of producing vanilla, but I also chatted with Josephine Lochhead – her dad started the company she now co-owns – about the vagaries and challenges of the vanilla industry.

Obviously, the world of vanilla sourcing and production has changed dramatically since Raymond Lochhead launched his eponymous company. Global demand, international trade, and speculative commodity pricing have descended upon the vanilla industry like a perfect storm, especially recently.

“Prices have soared,” Lochhead said. “From 2003 to 2011, the price was about $20-30/kilo,” she recalled. Such low margins meant only a country with rock bottom labor costs could be in the game – Madagascar. In 2012, crop shortages and increasing demand started nudging prices up, then drop kicked them skyward. Today, the going rate for a kilo of high quality vanilla beans is over $250!

“There’s a limit to what people will pay for natural vanilla and we’re nearing that point,” Lochhead said in a March, 2016 interview with Bloomberg News.

Not surprisingly, other countries are trying to get a piece of the lucrative vanilla pie, and sometimes the painstaking attention to detail in harvest and curing gets shoved aside for profit motive.

Given these circumstances, the Lochhead family realized that the only way to ensure the high quality of their product was to spend “a lot more time on the ground, to be over there in Madagascar,” Lochhead told me. Mind you, such travel isn’t at five-star hotels. The country’s infrastructure is pretty minimal.

However, going that extra mile – well, 10,933 miles to be exact – has paid off for the Lochhead-Schmidt family in a serendipitous manner. You can read more about that in the Edible SLO piece, but here’s the short story.

During one in-country trip by Donald Schmidt, Lochhead’s husband, he was contacted by a fledgling, women-owned vanilla brokerage company. The two entities realized they had a lot of goals in common, including working together to create social and economic improvements in the villages of the local vanilla growers.

Now that’s the kind of vanilla I want in my pantry, especially this time of year.

— Katy Budge

Here’s the link to the Holiday 2016 issue of Edible SLO. My article should appear if you click yes to the question of whether you want to start from the last page viewed. If not, it’s on pages 12-13, and definitely peruse the rest of the issue! (note: the photo at bottom right is of Josephine Lochhead and her husband Donald Schmidt.)


2 thoughts on “Vanilla … Anything But Plain

  1. Katy
    If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend ‘Eight Flavors’ by Sarah Lohman. She’s a food historian who spoke at the Dallidet Adobe a month or so ago. One of the chapters is on Vanilla. I think you will like this book.

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