Vanilla has a remarkable story, filled with history, passion and piracy. Here are a few important dates:
1500 – The history of vanilla starts with the Totonac, an Indian tribe who lived on the east-central coast of Mexico. They were the first keepers of vanilla’s secret, no one beyond the region knew about it! They were able to grow vanilla and soon developed a taste for the vanilla pods.
The Totonac were conquered by the Aztecs who forced them to give up their secret method and to relinquish their “holy” exotic fruit-vanilla pods
1520 – The first time vanilla was brought to Europe. The conquistador Hernán Cortés, who defeated the Aztecs, returned to Spain and introduced vanilla to Europe. Vanilla was combined with cacao to make an unusual and pleasing drink. For eighty years this special beverage was only enjoyed by the nobility and the wealthy.
The name “vanilla” comes from the Spanish word “vaina”, meaning “little pod”.
1602 – Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, suggested that vanilla could be used as a flavour in its own right and the versatility of the exotic beans was finally fully revealed!
1820 – French colonists brought vanilla beans to the island of La Réunion and nearby Mauritius with the hope of starting production there.
For more than 300 years the pollination mechanism remained a mystery until…
1836 – Charles Morren, a Belgian professor of botany at the University of Liège, discovered that the vanilla flower is pollinated by the sociable and stingless Melipone bee, which is only found in Mexico. He was the first to discover a method for artificial pollination, but it was slow and laborious.
1841 – A 12 year old slave, Edmond Albius, invented a technique to pollinate orchids quickly and profitably. His technique revolutionized vanilla production. His method is still used today.
Until the mid 19th century Mexico was the World’s leading vanilla producer.Nowadays, Madagascar has overtaken Mexico to become the biggest producer.