History of Vanilla

History of Vanilla

Vanilla has been one of the most familiar flavours (especially in Western Cuisine) for centuries.

The first to cultivate vanilla were the Totonac people, who inhabited the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the present-day state of Veracruz. According to Totonac mythology, the tropical orchid was born when a princess, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Legend has it that where their blood touched the ground, the vine of a tropical orchid grew (later to be known as Vanilla – from the Spanish Vainilla meaning “little pod” given by Spanish explorers arriving in the Gulf of Mexico in the early sixteenth century).

The Spanish conquistadors under Cortez sampled a drink offered by the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma. This drink, served in Golden Goblets was made from Vanilla beans combined with chocolate.

For around eighty years, this sought after beverage was only available to the nobility and the extremely wealthy. In 1602, Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, suggested that vanilla could be used as a flavouring by itself , and Vanilla was soon introduced into Europe and used in the flavouring of chocolate, tobacco and other medicinal uses.

In the early 1800’s, Vanilla was transported to Reunion and Mauritius for cultivation. A few years later in 1841, a simple and efficient artificial pollination method was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion: a method still used today !

Vanilla plants were then taken to Asia, the Caribbean and the Comoros Islands. Today, Vanilla is grown in tropical regions of the world.

Vanilla species & types

Vanilla species & types

Vanilla Species

There are at least 150 species of vanilla indigenous to tropical regions worldwide.

Despite the fact that varieties of the vanilla orchid can be found in such diverse places as Africa and Asia, the only species that have proved to be edible and useful, came originally from the Americas. Further, there are only two members of the American family that have been used commercially: Vanilla Planifolia and Vanilla Pompona Schiede

A third edible species, Vanilla Tahitensis was believed to have originated by crossing Planifolia and Pompona stock in a plant laboratory in Manila in the 1700s. It is rather a subspecies of Vanilla Planifolia.

Vanilla produces the only edible fruit in the entire orchid family.


Botanical Name Vanilla planifolia Andrews or vanilla fragrans
Common Name Vanilla Orchid
Family: Orchidaceae (orchid family)
Origin: Mexico
The planifolia is a tropical, evergreen, leafy, and somewhat fleshy vine, growing under a canopy of support trees. The plant is sustainable within a 20-degrees band around the equator. The “Bourbon vanilla” is the term used for vanilla beans grown only on the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar, Reunion, Comoros and Mayotte.

This variety also includes vanillas grown in India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Guatemala, and Uganda, but without the label “Bourbon”.


The “Vanillon” (Vanilla Pompona Schiede) is a species of the genus Vanilla. This variety has become very rare, but still found in Guadeloupe and in the West Indies from Mexico to Bolivia and Brazil.

It flowers from January to May. The flowers are greenish yellow with a lip color varying from white to reddish yellow. The leaf shape is oval and wide.

The quality of its beans is nevertheless considered to be lower with a low vanillin content and a strong smell of coumarin. The fruits are shorter and more rounded than those of the reference case (Vanilla planifolia).


Vanilla Tahitensis is a weaker vanilla with ‘fruity, floral, and sweet’ flavors created by the compound heliotropin. Tahitensis is a mutated form of a planifolia orchid from Tahiti, though most Tahitensis vanilla is now grown in Papua New Guinea.

Some vanilla of this type is also grown in Tahiti and Indonesia.

The vanillin content in Tahitensis vanilla is lower in comparison to the planifolia vanilla variety.


Although there are over a 100 varieties of Vanilla, there are two major varieties used commercially:


Bourbon vanilla is the generic name for vanilla species planifolia. Originating in Mexico planifolia vanilla cuttings were taken in the 1800s and grown by the French in large plantations at  Ile de Bourbon thus explaining the origins of it’s name. Bourbon vanilla has the familiar vanilla flavour we have come to know and love, such as that in ice cream, flavoured desserts and drinks. Common examples include vanilla grown in Madagascar, India, Reunion, Uganda etc.


Tahitian vanilla is the generic name for the vanilla species tahitensis. This variety is the name for vanilla from French Polynesia. This variety is descended from Vanilla planifolia that was introduced to Tahiti before mutating into a distinct species. Tahitian vanilla is earthly and fruity, with less natural vanillin than planifolia.

Indian Vanilla Vs other Vanilla varieties such as Madagascan, Bourbon , Mexican, Tahitian etc.

Vanilla from India is the same variety (Planifolia) that is grown in Madagascar, Reunion & Mexico. All these pods have a fruity aroma and strong flavour. As these pods are grown and cured in different climates, they have similar but slightly different properties. Tahitian beans are a different species and have a earthy aroma and flavour and a different texture.

Indian Vanilla has now found acceptance worldwide and the country is now acknowledged as a major Vanilla producing nation.

Using Vanilla Pods

Using Vanilla Pods

Remove Vanilla Pods from all packaging and air for a little while. Gently massage the pods lengthwise to release the flavour and loosen the caviar inside.

Place a Vanilla pod on a chopping board. Using a paring knife, carefully split the pod lengthwise until it is halved. Now pull the two halves apart so you can see the seeds inside. Carefully scrape out the seeds with the tip of the knife.

The expended pod can both be cut into small bits and used along with the seeds to enhance the aroma of the dish being prepared or you could dry the spent pod for a couple of days and put into a sugar jar.

Storing Vanilla Pods

Storing Vanilla Pods

Vanilla pods actually improve with time. However it is important to store these pods correctly. Whilst Vanilla stored correctly will last almost indefinitely, you should use the pods purchased by the best before date on the pack (ranges from 1 to 3 years).

You will need to follow a few simple steps:

  • Our Vanilla Pods are packed in food-grade foil bags. On receipt, open packs and remove pods to store in a cool, dry place away from heat and light ideally in an airtight container, preferably glass. If storing for longer, wrap in cling film (ensuring all air has been squeezed out) and check pods regularly. Vanilla Pods should NOT be refrigerated.
  • Stored Vanilla needs constant airing. Remove the pods from the airtight container and expose to air for at least 15 minutes. It also helps if you massage the Vanilla pods lengthwise by hand during this period as this helps to disperse the vanilla seeds inside. Ensure that your hands are clean. After airing, rewrap and place the pods into the airtight container. You should do this at least 4-6 times per year.
  • You might notice white frosting/crystals on the pods. This is a perfectly normal occurrence. The white frosting/crystals are actually Vanillin crystals and may form from time to time. However, please note that incorrect storage can also result in the formation of mildew or fungus. To ascertain if the discolouration is due to Vanillin Crystals or Mildew/Fungus, firstly, you should smell the affected pod to check for any odour and secondly hold the pod against natural sunlight. If the pod smells rotten and does not reflect the visible light spectrum (colours of the rainbow) the affected pods should be discarded as this can spread to the uninfected pods.
  • If any of the pods are dried, do NOT throw these away. Instead, try rehydrating them by immersing in warm milk or lukewarm water for a few hours to revive the pods as they will still contain lots of flavour.