The History of Vanilla - America's Gift to Chocolate Fiends

Was Vanilla Domesticated to Respond to 18th Century Marketing Demands?

Vanilla orchids (Vanilla planifolia)
Vanilla orchids (Vanilla planifolia). Dan Sams / Getty Images

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia and V. tahitensis), that wonderfully spicy-sweet flavoring, comes from the beans of an American domesticated plant called the vanilla orchid, in fact, one of only a handful of edible orchid plants. It is the second most expensive spice after saffron, because of the extensive processing procedure required to make the vanilla bean wildly aromatic.

Characteristics

There are an estimated 100 species of vanilla in the genus Vanilla Plumier ex Miller (Orchidaceae), only about 30 of which have aromatic fruits.

Vanilla has fleshy, leathery or totally absent leaves; long, thin deciduous berries with an enormous number of extremely tiny seeds; and a showy white or yellow flower. 

The beans have built-in flavor-producing glucosides but they are only truly turned on during the curing process. The beans need to be repeatedly heated and then dried to prevent them from rotting, and that process takes from 6-9 months, a curing that Native American groups developed and kept secret from the vanilla-addicted Europeans until the 1700's.

Early Use

The earliest documented use of vanilla is in the 1550s, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, where Spanish accounts described the locals grinding up wild beans with other aromatics. Accounts dated to the 1580's report that vanilla was used to flavor hot chocolate (cacao) drinks in Colonial Mexico and Guatemala. The antiquity of vanilla use as a cacao beverage flavoring may be as old as cacao beverages themselves; unfortunately, we have no physical evidence of that--unlike the chocolate chemical theobroma, vanillin breaks down readily and does not leave long-lasting evidence as residues in ancient cups.

In the Americas, vanilla was used as both a ritual plant and as a medicine for a wide variety of ailments from headaches to a lack of fertility. For Maya, Aztec and Totonac societies, vanilla beans were both tribute and trade. In particular, the Maya mixed it with copal resin and used it as incense in sacred temples and rituals.

In Europe, it has long been used in recipes for the best of perfumes.

A European Market

It was the European market for vanilla that drove the first cultivation. Trade and tribute use of vanilla through Mesoamerica probably began during the Late Postclassic period (1350-1500). Vanilla's most favorable growing regions are in Soconusco, Lacandon and Papantla regions of Mesoamerica. Totonac groups in Papantla emerged as the main source for vanilla beans by the late 17th century, and between the 1760s-1840s they held a monopoly on the market.

The original Totonac export was a matter of gathering vanilla beans from wild populations, curing them and then exporting them. By the 17th century, there were severe wild declines in the wild populations, but vanilla was now tied to the cacao trade. Lust for chocolate and vanilla in Europe kept increasing and by the 1760s, the Totonac operated vainillales--vanilla farms--in Veracruz.

Totonac Monopoly

The Totonac held a global monopoly on vanilla for nearly a century, in part because they kept the curing process a secret, but also because the only way to mass-pollinate the beans was by native American stingless bees. The monopoly fell apart when the Europeans figured out how to pollinate vanilla orchids--by hand.

The first vanilla cultivated in Europe was in Paddington, England in the early 1800s. An orchid plant was picked up in the West Indies by the Marquis de Blandford and cultivated in a greenhouse owned by another member of the British aristocracy, C. Greville. Scholars Bory and colleagues argue that the modern Indonesian and Indian Ocean varieties of vanilla are derived from clones of this type, called the Blanford/Greville type.

By 1870, French colonies in the Indian Ocean, including plantations on Reunion, Comoros and Madagascar islands, surpassed Mexican production. Madagascar is still the top producer of vanilla bean today.

Naming Vanilla

The word vanilla comes from the Spanish term "vaina" meaning "pod" or "vagina". Names for the bean in the Americas include tlilxochitl ("black flower") in the Aztec language, zizbic or cizbique in the Maya language (I have yet to be able to locate an English gloss of that); and caxixanath (recondite or mystery flower) in Totonac.

In the Orinoco river region of South America vanilla was known as "ekere-nuri" or "jaguar's tongue"; and in 18th century Europe it was called the "chocolate drug".

Sources

This entry is part of the About.com Guide to the Domestication of Plants and the Dictionary of Archaeology.