Vanilla is the best loved flavour in the world today. Vanilla infuses cakes, ice creams, cookies, confections, yoghurts, fragrances, bath and body products, candles, rum, vodka, medicines, Coke, Pepsi…..the list is endless.
When you reach for ingredients to bake a cake, inevitably there is vanilla in the list. Never mind the flavour of the cake – vanilla is a must in the ingredient list. However, cakes have been baked for close to five millennia, starting with the ancient Egyptians. Whereas vanilla is an upstart from the New World that made a very late entry into the annals of spices and cookbooks. So how then did this new kid on the block become the world’s most-used spice? How did it wheedle its way into cakes, elbowing spices like cinnamon and cardamom, cloves and nutmeg aside? (Remember that these spices had launched a thousand ships, spurred the age of exploration and propelled the race to colonization!)
How did vanilla leave them in the dust? And that too, in a mere century or two?
Our story begins in Mexico where the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) grew and, for centuries, was the exclusive secret of the native Totonac Indians. The Totonac were later conquered by the Aztecs, who celebrated their victory by incorporating vanilla into their chocolate drinks.
When the Aztec empire fell to Hernán Cortés in 1521, vanilla pods were brought back to Spain, along with cacao beans, thus introducing the flavorful twosome to Europe. However, Mexico remained the sole growing region for vanilla beans for the next 300 years, primarily due to Spain’s strangle hold on this lucrative cash crop, but also in part because of the symbiotic relationship between the vanilla orchid and a tiny, indigenous bee called the Melipona. This Mexican bee was the only insect evolved to pollinate the vanilla orchid flower.
Vanilla quickly became the talk of the Spanish court. Francisco Hernandez, physician to King Philip II of Spain, called vanilla “a miracle drug that could soothe the stomach, cure the bite of a venomous snake, reduce flatulence, and cause the urine to flow admirably.” (Natural History of New Spain 1577). Bezaar Zimmerman, a German physician, claimed in his treatise “ On Experiences “ (1762) that, “No fewer than 342 impotent men, by drinking vanilla decoctions, have changed into astonishing lovers of at least as many women.”
This hype created inordinate demand for vanilla, which led to hundreds of farms and plantations in Vera Cruz. Spain’s monopoly over the sale of vanilla beans kept prices artificially high. By the late 18th century, a ton of Mexican vanilla was worth, “its weight in silver” writes author Tim Ecott.
With such mind-boggling profits as a lure, a few plants were smuggled out of Mexico to botanical gardens in Paris and London, then on to the East Indies to see if the plant would grow in Europe or Asia. It grew, but it wouldn’t fruit, wouldn’t produce beans. Flowers would appear, bloom for a day, fold up, and fall off. With no beans, there could be no vanilla extract, and therefore nothing to sell.
Spain’s monopoly continued unchecked.
The Slave’s Solution
Around 1793, a vanilla vine made its way from Paris to the Réunion island, formerly called The Bourbon island. For almost 50 years after its arrival, the growth and production of vanilla was difficult. The climate and growing conditions were perfect. The vines grew successfully with beautiful blossoms, but seldom resulted in vanilla pods.
Edmond Albius was born in about 1829, a slave on Île de Bourbon. When he was old enough, Edmond was sent to work at the estate of Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, who was known around the island for his skills in botany and horticulture. Bellier-Beaumont was a plantation owner who had kept a vanilla vine growing on his property for twenty years.
Writes Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavours, “In 1841, 12 year old Edmond developed the technique to pollinate vanilla that is still used today: he used a thin stick, a bit larger than a toothpick, to split the tubelike side of the flower, exposing the anther sac and the stigma, as well as the thin membrane that separated them. He lifted the membrane up and back, both exposing the stigma and causing the anther sac to shift upward. The anther sac touched the stigma, but just to make sure they connected, Edmond pushed them together with his thumb and forefinger.
“The procedure of smashing together the male and female parts of the orchid is known today as “the marriage.” If the marriage is successful, the thick green base of the flower swells almost immediately. The swollen base matures into a green fingerlike seedpod—a fruit—that ripens yellow and eventually splits at the end. It would be ready to harvest nine months later, much like a human baby.”
Rather than keep Edmond’s hand-pollination method secret, Bellier-Beaumont invited the heads of other local plantations over for a demonstration. Bellier-Beaumont made no attempt to claim the idea as his own. Edmond was celebrated in his time for his discovery. His technique spread all over the island, and then to the neighboring islands of the Seychelles and Madagascar. The vanilla beans that grow in this region, thanks to Edmond’s efforts, are often called Bourbon vanilla—named after the Île de Bourbon.
And so the Indian Ocean vanilla industry was born. In I841, Réunion exported no vanilla. By 1848, it was exporting 50 kilograms to France; by 1858, two tons; by 1867, 20 tons; and by 1898, 200 tons. Soon Réunion had outstripped Mexico to become the world’s largest producer of vanilla beans.
In 1848 the French took vanilla to Tahiti where it’s been cultivated as a cash crop since. Tahitian vanilla is the most expensive because of the paucity of the harvest?
Edmond Albius’ hand pollination technique was taken back to vanilla’s homeland, Mexico, where production increased five fold.
As production grew, extracts became a way to use the less saleable short or broken pods. Extracts were also the quick and easy way to add flavour to a dessert as an alternative to steeping a vanilla pod in cream and heating it gently to coax out its flavours.
In two short centuries vanilla with its complex aroma profile edged out rose water and the other spices to become the best loved flavour of all time.
The next time you reach for a bottle of vanilla extract say a silent thank you to the number of people past and present who helped bring vanilla to our tables.