A Brief History of Vanilla

Vanilla has a fascinating history, which most people don't know about. It originates from Mesoamerica, more specifically Mexico, but has now become more synonymous with Madagascar. So what happened? Read more to find out.

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A Brief History of Vanilla

The Origin of Vanilla

Vanilla is believed to have been initially cultivated by the Totonac people in Mexico, in the region of Totonacapan. This region is now encapsulated by the state of Veracruz in modern-day Mexico. It is unknown how long exactly the Totonac had known about and cultivated Vanilla, but in the 15th century, the Aztecs successfully conquered the Totonacs.

Going forward the Aztecs would get a large part of their tribute from the Totonacs in the form of Vanilla - and the Aztecs, in turn, used the vanilla for their Chocolatl - that name rings a bell doesn’t it? Of course, cacao also originates from Mesoamerica, hence the appropriation of the word “chocolate” into the European vocabulary.

When the Spaniards in turn came and took the land from the Aztecs, vanilla was one of the first spices/ingredients to be brought home. Hernan Cortez was the European “discoverer” of vanilla, and he brought home a large supply of vanilla to the Spanish royal court. From there it spread quickly into the European palate, but only as an additive in chocolate products.

In the early 17th century when Queen Elizabeth’s apothecary invented non-chocolate vanilla-flavored sweetmeats, vanilla became a core ingredient in its own right. By the early 18th century the French were using vanilla to flavor everything from ice-cream (discovered by non-other than Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s) to pastries, but it wasn’t until 1805 that the first known vanilla recipe appears in cookbooks, when Hannah Glasse wrote: “The Art of Cookery” which suggests adding “vanelas” to chocolate.

Sorted vanilla pods from our producers in Mexico

Vanilla was at the turn of the 19th century one of the hottest things in the royal courts of Europe, but all of this vanilla came at high cost from Spanish-owned Mexico in the 18th century. That changed dramatically throughout the 19th century.

Natural Pollination vs. Hand-Pollination

Vanilla can only be naturally pollinated by one specific bee, the Melipona Bee. The Spanish, French, Portuguese, and more attempted to replant the vanilla bean in other warm climes, but every time they failed to get fruits (pods or beans) on the plants, because they had forgotten the most important ingredient – pollination!

Non-Melipona bees (or other insects) cannot pollinate the vanilla orchid due to their shorter “snout”, and thus no matter what the French or Spaniards tried, they couldn’t get the plant to produce the delectable vanilla.

Melipona Bee

It all came down to the discovery of a young 12-year old slave named Edmond Albius on the island of Réunion, who in 1841 figured out how to hand-pollinate the vanilla orchids. This discovery changed the game, and allowed global cultivation of the plant, with France as the primary driver, leading to a number of former French colonies becoming the primary producers of vanilla, namely Madagascar and Réunion. Indonesia and a handful of other nations, hereunder Tahiti, Mexico, and Tonga make up the remaining majority of the world’s vanilla production. In fact today, Madagascar and Réunion produce somewhere between 70% and 80% of all vanilla in the world.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how exactly vanilla is produced, then we have written a separate article about the cultivation of vanilla here.