Vanilla is a flavoring that is derived from a species of orchid. It is commonly used to flavor sweet dishes and in perfume scents and aromatherapy. It is the second most expensive spice after saffron due to the labor required to grow and harvest the vanilla pods. There are three type of vanilla plant grown throughout the world. Madagascar and its surrounding islands is currently the world’s largest producer of vanilla.
Where does Vanilla come from?
The word vanilla comes from the Spanish word “vainilla” meaning little pod. The vanilla pod is harvested from a tropical orchid called Flat-Leaved Vanilla. This tropical orchid originated in the Mazatlan Valley on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, which is now the state of Veracruz. It was cultivated by the Totonac people. The Totanac people were invaded and conquered by the Aztecs in the 15th century who also cultivated vanilla due to its pleasing taste and aroma. Vanilla was not introduced to Europe until Spanish explorers arrived in the Gulf of Mexico in the 16th century.
Until the 19th century vanilla was only cultivated in Mexico as when transported to other places the plants would not pollinate and produce the pods. In 1819 the vanilla plants was shipped to the French islands of Réunion and Mauritius where they hoped to cultivate the vanilla plant. A young slave learned that the flowers could be pollinated by hand and the vanilla began to thrive. It was then transported to Madagascar and the Comoros Islands. Madagascar produces approximately 58% of the world’s vanilla beans and 80% of the world’s bourbon vanilla beans.