The Origins of Vanilla

Most people when they think of vanilla will think of ice cream; vanilla ice cream is after all the most widespread of all ice cream flavourings. Vanilla though is an ingredient in many things, from food and drink, to medicines and perfumes, and as a result it is a highly sought after spice.

Vanilla, even vanilla extract, ultimately comes from the sun-dried seed pod of vanilla orchid; indeed the name vanilla derives from the Spanish “vainilla”, a word that means “little pod”. The vanilla orchid is today grown in Madagascar and other islands of the Indian Ocean, Indonesia, Tahiti, India and Mexico, each production area though has slightly different flavours. The production of vanilla though is expensive, with hand pollination and sun drying occurring in the main, and as a result vanilla is normally the second most expensive spice after saffron.

Production of vanilla is relatively wide spread today, but historically this was not always the case.

The known history of vanilla production commences with the Totonac Indians of Mexico. Inhabiting the mountainous and coastal areas of Eastern Mexico, the Totanac people would cultivate the vanilla bean, or pod, to flavour their food. Production was relatively small scale and localised, but in the 15th century AD the Aztec empire expanded and the Totonacs found themselves as a subjugated people. Forced to pay tribute to the Aztec kings, the tribute was paid in the form of vanilla beans.

The Aztecs themselves though were conquered shortly afterwards as the Conquistadors of Spain arrived in Mexico. Indeed it was Hernando Cortez himself who is credited as bring vanilla beans to Europe, where the seeds were used alongside cacao in an expensive drink. Even then production was still localised to the east coast of Mexico, a situation which continued through until the early part of the nineteenth century.

In 1819 the French decided to try and grow vanilla orchids on some of their colonies, including Reunion and Mauritius. History doesn’t really record whether others had previously attempted to grow the plant outside of Mexico, but ultimately the French would be the first to succeed at least. Initially the French though had the problem that the orchid would grow, but would not pollinate. It seemed that only the Melipona bee of Mexico would pollinate the orchid, and the introduction of the bee to the French islands didn’t work.  

Eventually, a twelve year old slave, Edmond Albius, discovered a method of hand pollination, and the orchid pods began to grow. Production of orchid pods expanded, spreading from Reunion, out to Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, and eventually further a field.

Thus from Mexico six hundred years ago, vanilla has spread from Central America to the kitchen cupboards of people all around the world.