Updated: Mar 10
History of Vanilla
Vanilla has an intriguing history involving piracy and passion dating back more than 1000 years.
First known by the ancient Totonaco Indians of Mexico followed in the 15th century by the Aztecs. Later when the Spanish Conquistador’s arrived in Mexico they combined the vanilla pods with Cacao to make a drink. For 80 years it was solely enjoyed by the rich and famous.
It wasn’t until 1602 that its versatility was discovered by the Queen’s apothecary and that it could be used solely as a flavouring.
Until 1819 Mexico was the sole producer of Vanilla. This was all about to change when French entrepreneurs shipped the pods to Mauritius, Reunion Islands then to Madagascar. Madagascar is now the top grower of the best quality Vanilla in the world.
The Production of Vanilla
Vanilla production was haphazard for a number of years outside of Mexico, due to its pollination. Hand pollination was introduced in 1841 with a toothpick-like tool. Today it is solely done by hand; you lift the thin membrane separating the male organ (anther) from the female organ (stigma) and press the pollen against the stigma. The pollination has to take place quickly as the orchid dies within a few hours of opening.
It’s the seed inside the flower that then becomes a Vanilla pod, the only edible part of the plant. Once the pod is a good size it is harvested.
The next three stages are killing, sweating, and drying. The vanilla pods are moved between full sun to humid conditions and boiling. Then they are dried by the sun in the morning and returned to boxes in the afternoon so as to not lose all their moisture. The final stage is to grade quality by hand.
The whole process from planting a cutting to the pollination of vanilla pods can take between 18 months and 3 years! You can see why it is an expensive product to buy.