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.