Vanilla Economics: Nothing Basic About Your Latte

Vanilla Economics

Your ritual vanilla latte at Maeva’s doesn’t just feel like the most luxurious part of your day- it is.

If you hadn’t noticed yourself after your own home holiday baking, vanilla bean prices have skyrocketed from $20/kg in 2013 to over $600/kg.

That’s a market price that’s topped or hovered around silver for our last year of operation Maeva’s Coffee.

Vanilla vs. Silver
Source: https://moneyweek.com/493637/chart-of-the-week-vanilla-is-more-valuable-than-silver/

No big deal if you’re into those Kardashian-style gold leaf masks…but for the rest of us? The ‘plain jane’ flavor has become a luxury.

So what happened?

We’ve had two major shortages since Maeva’s started handcrafted our own latte flavorings in house.

First, major corporations (think Unilever and Nestle) committed to using natural flavors, a push that drove up demand. Then, a cyclone in 2017 wiped out 30% of the crop in Madagascar.

If we were talking corn or soybeans, it wouldn’t be so bad. But vanilla is one of the MOST difficult crops to produce.

With new vines taking up to 5 years to flower, small shops like ours couldn’t afford the skyrocketed price on high-quality beans from Madagascar. So we shifted back to using beans from Mexico, vanilla’s native country.

Due to a unique relationship with the Melipona bee, Mexico is the only country where vanilla grows natively. The Melipona is only species small enough to pollinate the flower during its 8-12 hour, once a year, fertile window. And, like many pollinator species, it’s facing extinction.

On the other side of the world in Madagascar, without natural pollinators, vanilla flowers are painstakingly pollinated by hand. It’s a time-sensitive and time-consuming process.

Sourced from the BBC article linked below.

Shortages in Madagascar exacerbate the problems of supply for businesses, like our coffee shop, committed to using real vanilla. Scarcity has caused not only economic strain on the crop worldwide, but violent and often deadly disputes between farmers and the gangs who prey on them.

Bean theft is at an all-time high. Farmers who can’t afford to guard their crop 24/7, or hire local gangs to do so, are left in a bind. In 2018, so many of the beans were harvested early to avoid theft, the quality of Madagascar’s beans have dropped below the Mexican shipments we reluctantly turned to for our vanilla syrup.

Vanilla production has become so dangerous, many farmers have abandoned their land altogether. They are financially unable or unwilling to take the risk to cultivate new crops in the wake of environmental and economic destruction.

All this means your vanilla latte is a natural lead into talking about global economics and climate change. If you’re interested in nerding out a little more, BBC has an excellent article here.

Meanwhile, small businesses like Maeva’s are faced with a choice: continue to use real vanilla in our products or turn to artificial flavors.

It’s easy to be tempted by “natural vanilla flavors” that use other substances to round out vanillin flavor at 30% the cost of real vanilla. But looking closer, even “natural vanilla flavors” can be filled with coal, tree bark, and cow dung. Finding a supplier that is open about the ingredients they source isn’t easy.

But we aren’t alone.

Anyone who’s made a commitment to giving customers the real deal has felt the pricing crunch. Our friends at Pint Size in STL mentioned it in their IG last fall, right before the holiday rush.

At Maeva’s, we’ve backed off using vanilla in our baked goods. Instead, we’ve begun to substitute higher quality spices like freshly grated nutmeg and Vietnamese cinnamon with a minimum of 6% oil content.

But vanilla syrup? There’s no substitute for true vanilla bean flavor.

We’re still making our vanilla latte syrup by hand.

Maeva's Coffee
Maeva’s Coffee, Photo By Virginia Harold 2018

The next time you see those speckles in your drink, sit back and savor the moment.

At lot goes into making our espresso and milk top quality at Maeva’s.

Add in a hint of vanilla? You’ve got yourself a royal treat.

Mirepoix: The Magic of Kitchen Scraps

Mirepoix

The origin of the Mirepoix is at once so ancient and culturally-fluid, it defies any factually-based narrative.

And true to that enigmatic origin, no one can give us a set recipe or ratio for its creation… even the precision-loving French gives a shrug when asked for guidelines. Mirepoix’s acolytes know only one path to enlightenment: Intuition.

Take for instance Mirepoix’s many alter egos- the Sofrito of Spain (or soffritto to the Italian), the Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking, the Suppengrün of Germany.

Between them are woven common threads but not one must-have element.

Everyone uses onion, except Germany. And everyone uses celery, except Spain…or the French but only if they are making bourguignon.

In the face of so many exceptions, there are no rules.


I fantasize that Mirepoix sprang spontaneous, wrapped in the midst of time-before-time alongside the origin of man.

After all, the idea of starting your meal prep with aromatic vegetables isn’t just a western-culture thing. The concept peeks out from the cooking pots of Prehistory Africa. It dances through the dusty records of an enlightened Asia where – five centuries before Columbus- scholars had predicted the existence of the Americas while eating meals grounded in sauteed garlic and green onions.

Like all old deities, Mirepoix is one legend disguised to which each culture assigns its own face. It’s the heroine in your soup pot, the strength in your paella, the depth in your stir fry.

If the ancient Greeks would have come to an agreement on what goes into a Mirepoix, perhaps we’d have a constellation in the shape of chopped vegetables.

Veggies in Pan
What is she?

Modest. Foundational. She is the philosophical heart of every recipe which begins with “first, take an onion…”

She is.. .your kitchen scraps.

Well, not always. But when it comes to making soup stocks and broths, she’s the patron saint of kitchen waste reduction. There isn’t a soup-making day at Maeva’s Coffee in which Miss Mirepoix doesn’t make an appearance.

When making a dish or soup in the final form, Mirepoix is redressed as a series of humble but foundational vegetables. Carefully chopped carrots, onions diced small or sliced into slender moons, arches of celery and minced garlic.

But on stock day, Mirepoix modestly serves as a supporting actress. Strained from the final product, she uses her earthy flavor to support the viscous cartilage pulled from simmered chicken backs and beef knuckles to bring forth a deep vitality.

Even on days when we are not making stock we always have a small pot bubbling of vegetable scraps. Mirepoix is old magic, turning water into the rich, fragrant vegetable broth found at the heart of all our vegan soups.

Draining Veggies

Yes, you can buy bouillon or paste- but why? Making stock (which, comes from bones, broth comes from meat…as I was recently corrected) is free, delicious, and so much better.

The only thing it costs is attention.

From a business perspective, our mirepoix, and, by extension our dedication to handmade stock, is just another solid resource management practice for our small coffee shop in Alton.

Economically unromantic unless, like most small business owners, “frugal” is something that turns you on.

Quick check: does this stat get you excited?

During soup season, our pre-consumer food waste is 8%, +/- 3%.

If your toes started tingling, you may be a restaurateur.

And you can thank the mirepoix.

Those carrot peels and herb stems? Throw them in the pot.

That sad-looking green pepper that was lost on the back shelf of the walk-in? Throw it in, too.

Tough oyster mushroom anchors, papery tomato peels and corn cobs…all find their way into some stock by way of mirepoix.

Environmentally speaking, waste not…want not.

There are only two constraints:

#1 Time.

Use your scraps within 48 hours, or, better yet immediately. Any longer and you risk creating a composting biohazard that covers your cooler in a snowy blanket of mold.

#2 Intuition.

Your choice on how you want to acquire it.

The easy way is to Google it.

Or, if you like to build character, you can find out through experimentation why never to include potato peels or how zucchini skin turns everything the color of the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day.

The only “hard no’s” I have for Mirepoix are:

  • Never invite the Brassica family…Cabbage or Cabbage-Relatives (Cauliflower, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts…the smell is terrible)
  • Save the potatoes for the compost (no critical damage but makes a starchy, “dirty” looking broth)
  • No fingers, chop with care. Vegetables, especially parsnips, can be deceptively dangerous when dicing.

Be weary of red onions, beets, and deep green vegetables that can turn your broth unappetizing colors.

Veggie Soup

In the true spirit of Mirepoix, I have no hard and fast rules. I think about our soup menu and create stocks accordingly…

Lamb stocks get an extra helping of sage, leek-ends, and whole peppercorn.

Corncobs and garden peppers get tossed in with shrimp shells for the base of our gumbo.

I keep chicken stocks neutral, with the “classic three” of carrot, celery, and onion to maintain versatility.

At home, vegetable stock can be made quickly from dinner scraps and stored in the fridge for up to one week. Used for soups, it is gentle and light. It makes a solid risotto. My favorite use? Boil your pasta in it for extra flavor. If you have no immediate need, freeze into quart bags for a later date.

Here is a simple guide to reducing waste in your own kitchen by crafting vegetable stock:

  1. Use a medium to a large stockpot, one that will allow you to achieve a 2-3 parts water to 1 part vegetable scraps.
  2. Drizzle olive oil into the pot after it warms (to prevent burning your oil). If you’re a careless chef, use avocado or coconut oil, both of which are less sensitive to heat. You can use small pat of butter as well if you aren’t concerned with crafting a vegan base.
  3. Place a halved onion or onion scraps, without skins, into the pot to brown. This will give your vegetable stock a rich, tawny color and a deeper flavor. Remember that using red onions will color your stock.
  4. If desired, after browning the onion, gently sautee other vegetable scraps. Or not. It depends on the flavor, and amount of attention, you wish to give your stock.
  5. Top the pot off with 2-3 parts water. Add bouquet garni, additional herbs, hard spices, bay leaf, etc.
    Unlike bone stocks, vegetables release their flavor easily. Bring to a simmer but never to a boil. Boiling will break down your vegetables and risks a cloudy stock. Furthermore, some vegetables if overcooked with act as a “sponge”, trapping your beautiful stock at the end of the process.
  6. Simmer gently 20-45 minutes as desire.
  7. Strain through a wire mesh covered in cheesecloth.

Here’s a secret about stocks I’ve discovered only in the last season: even the most aromatic stocks don’t typically taste as you’d expect until salt, acid, or fat is added. This is why so many of your boxed grocery stocks have a high sodium content…people expect them to taste pretty much like chicken soup straight from the box.

But you know better.

Save the salts and fats until cooking. This is just a base. The recipe you use your heavenly brown stock for will naturally have new flavors introduced by your cooking methods and ingredients.

Even the soups we make ahead for the shop are not salted until heated for serving the day of- allowing the natural flavors of the spices, meats, and vegetables to rest, breathe, and intensify on their own. Salt your stock before serving, not before storage.

Chifa: The Lovechild of Two Worlds

Veggie Bowl

They came by the thousands across the sea.

Men stacked into the infiernos flotantes for three months on the water.

Behind them was Asia, where they had left most worldly possessions. Still, some brought along precious tokens of their former life in the folds of their clothes- spices. Ginger. Soy. Others brought along memories of generations-old recipes.

This was the birth of Chifa. Or Nikkei. The story of how indigenous Peru fell in love with Asian immigrants and, in turn, their cuisine.  


Lomo Saltado
Lomo Saltado

Two days off the plane in South America, I took an uber to Barrio Chino.

Chinatown in Lima, Peru.

The narrow streets flooded with people. They spilled over the sidewalk and into the car lane paying no attention to the blaring car horns coming from every direction. Our driver pointed ahead some blocks and told us in Spanish to get out and walk. There was too many people, he wasn’t wasting his time. Three city blocks to the restaurant.

We were looking for chifa- the Chinese Peruvian fusion that Peru had embraced as a national cuisine.

As early as the 1600s Asian men arrived in Peru, imported as slaves and servants, by way of Portuguese traders. The immigration from Asia hit a high in the mid-1800s with the Peruvian guano boom, where men worked night and day in coastal guano mines and sugar plantations.

While generically called “chino” (Chinese), their background was far more diverse. They came from China, yes, but also the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia- and even as far east as India and Sri Lanka.

While not technically slaves (slavery was abolished in 1854), they may as well have been. Living and working conditions were beyond terrible. Still, these men found companionship in an equally oppressed people- indigenous Peruvians.

As Peruvian women married Asian men, their cuisine also mixed together. Soy sauce met ceviche as Asian cuisine was introduced into the existing food-rich culture of Criollo (Spanish-influenced native cuisine).

Now, the business of chifa is a serious source of national pride.

I had sought out authentic chifa on the second day of our journey. It was good…like fresher Chinese food to the American tourist eye.

Here’s the problem: I was missing the point.

I was an outsider. I come from casseroles and mashed potatoes. I wasn’t born into this slice of centuries-old culinary history.

The key that brought me closer, and started my obsession with chifa, was a week spent eating pre-chifa with the indigenous peoples of the Sacred Valley.

Food of the Sacred Valley

My playground was the El Albergue in Ollantaytambo, a remote hotel on the way to Machu Picchu that produced everything it needed in its own backyard.

Unfortunately, while I was doing this:

My husband was hooked up to an IV fighting C Diff doing this:

Man w/ IV
Poor Jesse 🙁

“It’s only a good story because I survived.” He reminds me.

Still, I miss South America.

Especially the Sacred Valley. Especially in January.

The place was a food Eden.

Everything was ripe. Everything was in season.

In one mountain valley: pineapple farms. In another, root vegetables.

People made a living gathering flowers, fruits and vegetables growing freely by the side of the road and taking them to market. When the wind blew it funneled the sweetness of the strawberry fields and pre-rain ozone through the ancient towns.

I walked timidly into the fields alone and asked to buy strawberries from the farm laborers.

They answered me in Quechua, not Spanish. Good thing friendliness is universal.

I blindly followed them through fields dotted with deep red berries to a dirt-floored stable. An exchange of coins with an elderly matriarch bought me a heavy flat of strawberries.   

Just one taste of a berry that fresh and sweet…

I don’t know what I ate that week. But I knew I had stumbled upon the raw resource for Lima’s spectacular cuisine.

Returning to the city, I realized how chifa is less of a “fusion food”- in the American sense- and more of a history of a nation. Chifa’s birth story is an estuary. Two peoples, five thousand years of history, colliding across an ocean.

And it thrives in the geography of Peru.

With the sea, the sacred valley, and every ingredient just a breath away, Peruvians fearlessly add any and all to their plate. One of Peru’s most popular dishes, the aeropuerto (“airport”), is a mix of fried rice and chow mein noodles with, as the name suggests anything else off the shelf that “lands in.”

Chifa continues to evolve as a living cuisine- the chef’s Lomo Saltado is on every restaurant menu. This is fusion elevated through the availability of quality ingredients and the total embrace of cultural appreciation.

Back at Maeva’s Coffee…

Did Peru’s 3,800 available potato varietals make this Welsh/Scottish girl a little jealous?

Yes.

Am I craving farm-ripe strawberries in January?

Most certainly.

Does my knowledge of South American cuisine even remotely scratch the surface of the last 500 years of global economic history that changed five thousand years of indigenous culture?

No. No, I don’t know much about Peruvian cuisine. But it left a mark on my heart.

So if you see spring rolls filled with sweet potato noodles or Causa Limeña show up on in the case at Maeva’s Coffee, it’s me in the kitchen hoping to share a piece of this history with you.