Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Most of us don't give vanilla a second thought. You might think of vanilla as a very "plain" flavor. But in fact, vanilla has a very colorful past that is anything but plain. I never really stopped to consider the origin of vanilla past the grocery store shelf until fairly recently. My interest in orchids is what really made me appreciate vanilla.
Vanilla extract comes from the fruit of the Vanilla orchid, usually Vanilla planifolia, though there are over 100 species of Vanilla known worldwide. There has been debate on the exact date of the discovery, but most estimate vanilla use dates back at least 1,000 years. Cortez is credited with introducing human consumption of vanilla to Europe in the 1500s. The Aztecs fed Cortez a drink called xocolat, a hot chocolate-like mixture of cocoa beans, corn, honey, and vanilla, and he was hooked. So was everyone in Europe after they tried the strange elixir from the New World.
The New World explorers brought the plant back to Europe, but no one could manage to get Vanilla to produce its valuable fruit outside of its native lands in Mexico and Central America. The production of Vanilla fruit remained exclusive to Vanilla's native habitat for over two centuries. It wasn't until 1836 that a Belgian botanist, Charles Morren, discovered the key to producing Vanilla fruit was pollination of the flower by a tiny bee native to the region. He is the first person to have successfully pollinated and produced Vanilla fruit, or beans outside of Mexico.
Producing the Vanilla bean takes at least nine months, and is only the first step in vanilla production. Vanilla orchids, and fresh Vanilla beans have no vanilla scent. It is only after a complicated three month curing process of heating and cooling that the distinctive scent and flavor of vanilla develops. The finished product is sold, or may be processed into vanilla extract. Considering the amount of labor that contributes to the finished product, it's no wonder that vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. Given its history and production process, how can anyone call vanilla "plain"?