Home Expat Blogs Vanilla Originated in Mexico Centuries Ago

Vanilla Originated in Mexico Centuries Ago

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Drying Vanilla in Mexico
Credit: Joseph Toone

It’s difficult to gambol about town and not be asked if you want to buy a little container of vanilla, that wonderful ingredient that seems to be in everything these days.  Did you know that vanilla originated in Mexico centuries ago? It’s a great story that expats should know about.

I learned vanilla is the only edible fruit of the 25,000 species of orchid. The indigenous Veracruz tribe called the Totonacs are credited as its first cultivators, dating back to the 13th century.

The Totonacs considered vanilla a sacred herb and used it in faith-based events as a perfume for protection against evil and medicine, but rarely used it as a flavoring. By the early 1400s, the Aztecs added to vanilla’s mystique by combining it with chocolate in the corn-based drink, atole.

When the Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortez, first met Emperor Montezuma he was offered a drink mixing chocolate and vanilla.   Cortez inquired as to its special original flavor and fragrance. He was told it was vanilla (Little Sheath), which describes the shape of the vanilla pod. Cortez was so impressed that he returned to Spain with a supply of vanilla beans to add this special flavor and fragrance to the King’s palate.

Because of the rarity and extraordinary cost in shipping, vanilla soon became the exclusive beverage of all European aristocrats and the favorite flavor of Queen Elizabeth I.

During the next 300 years, Mexican vanilla was transplanted to various sub-tropical regions throughout the world, without success.

Vanilla, a climbing orchid vine often 300 feet in length, grew beautiful foliage and flowers in all of its new sub-tropic locations, but never produced any vanilla pods. It was a mystery to the world until 1836 when it was discovered that the orchid blooms were visited by a small bee only found in the forests near Veracruz during the five hours or less the orchid bloom lived. This specialized little bee provided the pollination that produced the fruit.  The bee is only found in Mexico, making the very existence of vanilla seem like an evolutionary long shot.

The pollinated orchid produces a long green bean, but the bean must remain on the vine for nine months, just like a human baby, to develop its complex flavor and fragrance profile. Yet when the beans are harvested, they have neither flavor nor fragrance until they go through an arduous curing and drying process.

Methods of curing and drying vary, but in all cases, the pods are heated in ovens or hot water. The beans are then placed in the sun each morning for weeks, sometimes months, before being placed in large wooden boxes and allowed to sweat. The beans will lose nearly 80 percent of the original moisture content before their more than 250 natural flavor and fragrance components are completely developed, creating the intoxicating aroma of vanilla drying. The entire process from pollination to shipment takes about one year.

By the late 1800s, not only was vanilla the established flavor of choice for ice cream, but it was an essential ingredient in soft drinks including Coca-Cola.

In 1900, 97 percent of the land around Veracruz was tropical forest.  By 1960, less than 5 percent of the forest was left.  Instead, Madagascar started producing 75 percent of vanilla worldwide with the invention of a hand-held toothpick-like device enabling it to mimic the bees and pollinate the orchid.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice (after saffron) due to the extensive labor required to grow, harvest and cure the vanilla beans.  Vanilla costs more per ounce than silver. Too bad the conquistadors didn’t focus on harvesting vanilla rather than mining silver!

Today, it seems folks like vanilla nearly three times better than chocolate, which surprised me (being from Hershey, Pennsylvania), but who am I to doubt the International Ice Cream Association.

Mexico’s total production of vanilla today is about 2,000 metric tons, which is a drop in the bucket when it comes to vanilla’s demand. Ninety-nine percent of vanilla-flavored products on the market, from vanilla-flavored vodka to vanilla wafers and vanilla pudding, don’t actually contain vanilla.

Synthetic vanilla is twenty-fold cheaper to produce than real vanilla and sold ten times more often. If you’re nibbling on something vanilla-flavored or sniffing something vanilla-scented, chances are that you’re enjoying synthetic vanilla.

The Mexican National Vanilla Product Committee declared earlier this year that “95% of vanilla consumed in Mexico is artificial.”  So, if your vanilla purchase wasn’t costly, it probably wasn’t real vanilla.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Joseph – fascinating article about the history – and current-day reality – of vanilla. I spent 3 weeks in Tahiti and vanilla was incredibly plentiful there. Every restaurant featured a fresh fish dish with a vanilla sauce. You could literally smell it in the air and we were told that a lot of the world’s vanilla comes from that area. I’m curious if your research mentioned anything about vanilla and Tahiti? I’m going to do some googling now as my interest is piqued!

    • Hi Kelly, No, not really other than that corner of the world got a lot of the plants when it took them a while to realize what the Mexican bee did and they could mock it for propagation. Tahiti sounds lovely but most of what I found on today’s vanilla focused on Madagascar.

  2. Hi Kelly, No, not really other than that corner of the world got a lot of the plants when it took them a while to realize what the Mexican bee did and they could mock it for propagation. Tahiti sounds lovely but most of what I found on today’s vanilla focused on Madagascar.

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