We’ve all been familiar with vanilla since we were small children – a scoop of vanilla ice cream was probably the first dessert we ever tried. So, where did vanilla actually come from? For people with only a basic knowledge of vanilla – hello, synthetic vanilla-flavored ice cream – you may not realize that vanilla comes from beans that are grown on a plant. Not just a plant but a flowering plant usually found growing up the side of trees. To learn more, we’re going to take a look at where vanilla comes from as well as some facts and history surrounding the vanilla bean.
The Vanilla Bean
So, what is the vanilla bean and where does it come from? Let’s break it down:
- The vanilla bean is considered the fruit of the vanilla plant, the Vanilla orchid. The vanilla plant is a flowering plant genus with about 150 varieties of vanilla orchids available today.
- The most commercially available member of this family is the Vanilla Plainfolia which is in the same family as Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla beans.
- Appearance-wise, you probably wouldn’t recognize the vanilla bean if it hit you in the face. It’s dark brown, waxy and long, averaging five to seven inches per bean. It is shiny and plump on the outside and full of hundreds of tiny vanilla bean specks on the inside.
- The “specks” that are found on the inside are what give vanilla their flavor and aroma, containing the natural compound vanillin. These vanilla beans are what is primarily used for vanilla flavoring rather than the hollowed-out pods – although a combination of both creates a fantastic boost of flavor.
The History of the Vanilla Bean
The plant that produces the delicious vanilla bean has its origins in Mexico and was kept secret by the native Totonac Indians for centuries. The Totonac Indians were conquered by the Aztecs who kept these glorious vanilla plants to themselves. It was only when the Aztec empire was defeated by Hernán Cortés, a Spanish Conquistador, that vanilla pods were brought back to Spain in the 1500s. This is when vanilla was officially introduced to Europe and then to the rest of the world.
The Discovery of Hand Pollination
A single vanilla vine was literally smuggled into the Réunion Island of Madagascar around the year 1793 with the hopes of being able to successfully grow vanilla in Madagascar. There was a snag in this plan, though. While vanilla orchids were growing successfully and flourishing with beautiful flowers, the vanilla pods themselves were rare.
This was because a key player was missing – the Melipona bee, the original pollinator of the vanilla plant in Mexico. Without them, vanilla pods were seldom able to grow and were only occasionally pollinated by local insects that are not attracted to these plants in the same way as the Melipona bee.
In 1836, Belgian botanist Charles Morren discovered that hand pollination was technically possible – however, he could not successfully pollinate the vanilla plant with his chosen technique. It wasn’t until a year later, in 1841, that a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius of Réunion perfected the hand pollination method.
Surprisingly, this was achieved by taking a thin stick or a blade of grass to lift rostellum, the little flap that separates the male anther from the female stigma, while simultaneously extracting and rubbing the pollen from the anther over the stigma.
Madagascar and Vanilla
Using young Edmond’s method, hand-pollination was eventually used on a commercial scale and the technique was perfected even further. Vanilla growers could not only hand select the best flowers to produce vanilla pods but they could space them out on the vine in a way that would help them to grow to their fullest potential.
Madagascar became the ideal location to grow vanilla due to its climate. The vanilla orchid grows best in hot and humid weather with rich soil, which Madagascar has plenty of. Unfortunately, another part of the reason why Madagascar is the top vanilla producer is due to the low cost of labor.
The Curing Process
No more than three days after harvest, vanilla beans go through a process called curing. This is a drying process that allows the vanilla to grow in both aroma and flavor. Madagascar cures vanilla beans in a slightly different way than Mexico does, by briefly submerging the beans in hot water to kill the beans. This ensures that the beans do not continue to grow.
Next, the beans are stored in sweat boxes before being spread in the sun to dry. They are then packed away and are ready to be shipped to different locations around the world.
Both the growing conditions and the curing process are necessary to produce high-quality vanilla with a rich and complex flavor.
A Few Interesting Facts
Want to know some more interesting facts about the vanilla bean? Let’s take a look at what makes this popular spice so majestic.
- It takes nine whole months for the vanilla seed pods to mature enough to harvest.
- The curing process of the vanilla bean takes three months.
- Out of the 20,000 species included in the orchid family, the vanilla plant is the only fruit-bearing member.
- Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.
- Vanilla was once used in Europe as both an aphrodisiac and in medicines such as nerve stimulants.
- While a 2018 study confirmed that America’s favorite ice cream flavor is still chocolate at 14%, vanilla comes in an extremely close second at 13%.
We hope you learned a little something about the coveted vanilla bean and its rich history. There is so much more to vanilla than the artificially flavored stuff you get on your supermarket’s shelf. It has a complex history that may not have gone any further than the mid-1700s if it wasn’t for a 12-year-old. Thank you, Edmond.