Vanilla​—A Spice With a Long History


THE Aztecs called it tlilxochitl, “black flower,” alluding to the color of the cured fruit. They used vanilla to flavor their cacao-based drink xocoatl, or chocolate. Montezuma, the Aztec emperor of Mexico, is said to have served it to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1520. Cortés then introduced cacao and vanilla beans to Europe. Vanilla-flavored hot chocolate became the rage in European courts, but it was not until 1602 that Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, suggested using vanilla as a flavoring for other things. Then, in the 1700’s, vanilla began to be used in alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and perfumes.

However, long before the advent of the Aztec Empire, the Totonac Indians of Veracruz, Mexico, were growing, harvesting, and curing vanilla beans. * It was not until the early 1800’s that the vanilla plant was taken to Europe for cultivation and from there to islands of the Indian Ocean. But attempts by horticulturists to produce fruit from the plant were largely unsuccessful because of the absence of its natural pollinators, bees of the genus Melipona. So Mexico had a monopoly on the vanilla trade from the 16th century until the 19th century. In 1841, Edmond Albius, a former slave on the French island of Réunion, perfected a practical method for hand-pollinating the flowers so that the bean could be produced. This led to the commercial cultivation of vanilla outside Mexico. Today the main producers of the vanilla bean are former island possessions of France, such as Réunion and the Comoros, with Madagascar being the major producer.

Cultivation of Vanilla

The vanilla bean is actually the fruit of an orchid. The vanilla orchid is the only one among over 20,000 varieties of orchids that produces something edible. The plant is a climbing vine that must have some type of support and partial shade. In the wild it usually climbs on trees in wet, tropical lowland forests. In Mexico traditional plantations use native plants such as the pichoco as props, but orange trees have recently been used for this purpose with some success.

The vanilla orchid produces waxy greenish-yellow flowers that grow in clusters. Each flower opens only one day a year for a few hours. It is fascinating to watch the Totonac Indians do the delicate work of pollinating the flowers. They pollinate just a few from each cluster so as not to sap the energy of the plant, which could weaken it and make it prone to disease. The resulting long green pods, or beans, containing diminutive seeds, are harvested by hand from six to nine months later, before they are fully ripe.

The Curing Process

Interestingly, fresh vanilla beans have no taste or aroma. They must undergo an extensive curing process that results in the release of vanillin with its distinct aroma and flavor. This processing and the need for manual pollination make vanilla one of the most expensive spices. In Mexico the traditional curing process involved spreading the beans on dark blankets in the sun for an initial killing, called sun wilting. More commonly today, oven wilting is used for the initial dehydration. Then the vanilla is placed in special boxes wrapped in blankets and esteras, or mats, to sweat. Next, the vanilla is alternately sunned and sweated for several days until the beans turn a deep chocolate-brown. Afterward, they are deposited in the sweating boxes or in beds covered with waxed paper to dry slowly at ambient temperature for some 45 days. Then they  are conditioned for about three months in closed containers to develop their full aroma. Thus, producing vanilla is quite a labor-intensive project.

Natural Vanilla or Artificial?

Vanillin has also been produced synthetically from wood-pulp by-products. Reading the labels of products supposedly made from vanilla may surprise you. In the United States, for example, while ice cream labeled “vanilla” is made from pure vanilla extract and/or vanilla beans, ice cream labeled “vanilla flavored” may contain up to 42 percent artificial flavorings, and ice cream labeled “artificially flavored” contains imitation flavorings only. But as gourmets will attest, there is no substitute for the flavor of true vanilla.

While Mexico is no longer a major producer of vanilla​—its production being affected by such factors as destruction of the coastal rain forest and, more recently, by flooding—​it still possesses a valuable treasure, vanilla’s genetic base. * Mexican vanilla has traditionally been regarded as superior in aroma and flavor. Tourists seem to agree, as they often frequent border stores and duty-free shops at Mexican airports to buy natural vanilla extract at comparatively low prices. The next time you try ice cream made of natural vanilla, think of its long history and the work involved in producing it, and enjoy the flavor!


^ par. 4 The vanilla bean is native also to Central America.

^ par. 12 The vanilla plantations in Réunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, and the Seychelles are said to derive their vanilla from a single cutting introduced into Réunion from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

[Pictures on page 15]

A Totonac Indian pollinating flowers (left) and selecting the vanilla beans after the curing process (right). The vanilla orchid (below)

[Credit Line]

Copyright Fulvio Eccardi/