Origins of Vanilla

Vanilla: The Black Flower of the Aztecs

Vanilla was already highly valued in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (especially in Mexico) and was introduced into Europe by Spanish conquistadors, extending to the rest of the world later.

The history of vanilla is associated with that of chocolate. Its origin is Mexican. Before the Mexicas, and the Mayans, enriched with vanilla their thick drink made with chocolate, that was intended for nobles and warriors and was known as xocoatl. However, neither chocolate nor vanilla was cultivated by them, because the weather was not adequate in Central Mexico. The first historical references about vanilla speak of Aztec emperor Itzcóatl (1427-1440) who conquered the Totonac land and people, formerly known as “Totonacapan”,  which is the vanilla region, so after being conquered, a tribute had to be paid, and the vanilla (only the fruits) called in Mexica “tlilxochitl” which means black flower was the currency used.

In Totonac “zacanatanuxanath” which means ripe and black vanilla. Later it was dispersed throughout the rest of the territory because these small luxuries were obtained through trade with neighboring regions. In addition, their botanical knowledge about the plant that produced vanilla was limited, they called it tlilxochitl, which means « black flower ».

The Totonacs, who occupied the coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico in the north of the state of Veracruz and in the city of Papantla, were the ones who produced the vanilla and gave it to the Mexica. Its production and exporting capacity continued until the middle of the 19th century, at which time French growers in Mexico learned how to artificially inseminate flowers, based on the knowledge of the Totonac people.

In the region of Papantla, State of Veracruz, of the Mexican Republic, the Totonaca people live, whose first kings ordered to build temples to their gods, being Tonacayohua, the goddess of sowing, bread, and food: this goddess had at her service twelve young people who from vows made vows of chastity.

In the time of the Totonac king Teniztli third, one of his wives had a daughter who by her beauty was called Tzacopontziza “Lucero del Alba”, which was consecrated to the cult of Tonacayohua goddess of sowing and food.

This one fell in love with a young prince named  Zkatan-oxga “Young Deer”, even though such sacrilege was punishable by death.

Legend has it that one day when the girl left the temple to look for tortillas to offer to the goddess, she fled with the young prince towards the mountain, where a monster appeared that enveloped them in flames forcing them to retreat.

Upon their return, the priests waited for them and without explanation, they were beheaded and taken to the shrine, where after removing their hearts and placing them in vortic stones of the goddess altar, they were thrown into a ravine. In the place where they were sacrificed, the grass began to dry as if the blood of the two victims, scattered there, had a malefic influence.

Sometime later a shrub began to rise, it rose several feet from the ground and was covered with thick foliage. And from its stem, a climbing orchid on the trunk of the bush began to grow. One morning, the plant was covered with flowers and the whole area was bathed with an exquisite aroma.

The priests, amazed, did not hesitate to believe that the blood of the two princesses had been transformed into a bush and an orchid. Their surprise was greater when the beautiful flowers became long and thin fruits started to grow, and that, when ripened, they gave off a sweet and soft perfume as if the innocent soul of Lucero del Alba was the essence of the most exotic fragrance.

So the vanilla was declared a sacred plant and rose as a divine offering in the Totonac shrines taking the name of Caxixanath.

Since then, and even today, the Totonacas call the vanilla Caxixanath, which means “Hidden Flower”, Sumixanat, or more briefly, Xanat.

Some culinary experts, such as Marilyn Tausend, consider the Totonac vanilla to be the best quality throughout the world, especially in the form of the pure vanilla extract from Papantla, in the state of Veracruz. And it is often marketed in specialized food stores with the label “Mexican Vanilla”, although Mexico also produces inferior quality vanilla that usually shares this denomination.

The new orchid of the Spanish

The Spaniards discovered vanilla at the beginning of the 16th century by conquering the American continent. Nothing suggests that this species had attracted the attention of the first continental expeditions in Central America, including those of Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa in 1509 or that of Núñez de Balboa by Panama in 1513 because has found no record on this subject that could reflect it. Everything suggests, on the contrary, that the decisive discovery of vanilla is related to the arrival of the Spaniards in Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico, and with the meeting, in 1519, of Hernán Cortés with the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II, of which Sahagun describes their customs, and in particular the use of vanilla to flavor their chocolate. The first known written reference to vanilla, as well as the first illustration, appear in the Badiano Codex, written in Nahuatl by Martín de la Cruz and translated to Latin by Juan Badiano in 1552.12 Also, this reference is the first that appeared on an orchid of the New World.

The Spanish monopoly

For more than two centuries, from the XVII to the XVIII, the Spanish empire, and specifically the region, of present Mexico, Veracruz, maintained the monopoly of the vanilla. And the Totonacs continued to be the main world producers until the mid-nineteenth century. Arriving in Europe via Spain, vanilla was a real revolution.

All attempts to reproduce this orchid outside its original habitat proved a failure. In fact, it was not known until the nineteenth century that indigenous bees played an indispensable role in fertilization, and therefore in the production of the vanilla fruit. The international trade of vanilla took off in the nineteenth century from the knowledge of French after the invasion of Mexico, the aforementioned cultivation techniques.

Although in Spain it was already used profusely especially in chocolate, it was also very much appreciated at the court of France. For this, Luis XIV decided to try to introduce the plant in the Île Bourbon, or as it is currently called Reunion Island. However, the various attempts made during his reign failed. Apart from Spain and France, the spice was appreciated in many European countries. For example, Queen Elizabeth of England by her pharmacist, Hugo Morgan. This one, asked a sample to Charles de L’Ecluse, also called Carolus Clusius, because he had published in 1605, for the first time in Europe, a description of the pod called Lobus oblongus aromaticus, that is, “elongated aromatic husk”.

The irradiation of the Île Bourbon

The first artificial pollination of the plant was achieved in 1836 in the botanical garden of Liege by the Belgian naturalist Charles Morren, and later in 1837 by the French horticulturist Joseph Henri François Neumann.

However, it was not until 1841 that a young slave from Réunion, Edmon Albius, created the practical procedure that is still used today.14 This method of pollination, of which Jean-Michel-Claude Richard tried to appropriate authorship, made the Île Bourbon (today Reunion Island) the leader in the vanilla production of the entire planet just a few decades after 1819, the year of introduction of the orchid in the area. When the abolition of slavery took place in 1848, the young Edmond was given the patronymic of Albius, in reference to the “white” color (dawn) of the vanilla flower.

Vanilla has also been grown on the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; but when agriculture was reoriented towards cane and banana, it practically disappeared – like a large number of different species whose cultivation was flourishing – and, instead, imports were chosen.

Malagasy growth

It was the producers of Reunion who, around 1880, introduced the cultivation of vanilla in Madagascar. The first plantations were made on the island of Nosy Be. From there, they quickly multiplied in the eastern regions of the large island, specifically in Antalaha and Sambava, which have a favorable humid climate. The resonance was wide and, quickly, the Malagasy production surpassed the 1000 tons in 1929, surpassing in ten times the one of Reunion. But the vanilla market, lacking regulation, experienced a cyclical crisis due to overproduction.

Despite competition from other tropical countries such as Indonesia and the emergence of new dynamics to gain market, such as the state of Kerala (in India), Madagascar today retains, to a large extent, the rank of world’s leading exporter. Madagascar produces 60% of the world’s vanilla.

The cultivation of vanilla has spread in various humid tropical regions of the world. Two countries, Madagascar and Indonesia, nevertheless maintain most of the world production. Despite the fact that throughout the 1990s, Indonesian production remained the leader, Madagascar has regained its dominant position today.

In Madagascar, in 2004, vanilla was the livelihood of 80,000 farmers. It was grown mainly in the region of Sava, in the northeast of the island where there are 24,000 of the 29,500 hectares planted on the island. It is estimated that the other plantations involve some 1,500 hectares in the region of Diego Suárez and some 3,800 hectares in the Toamasina region, the port through which exports of the spice are made.

Other countries, with a long tradition in their cultivation, continue to help the world market in a more modest way: Mexico, Comoros and, in good times, Reunion and Tahiti. On the contrary, Seychelles and Mauritius no longer produce.

The productions of the southwest of the Indian Ocean are called vanilla Bourbon, whether originally from Madagascar, Comoros or Reunion. In this region of the world, the existence of the trade winds forces the cultivation to take place on the eastern coasts, the windy coasts, which are the wettest.

In Reunion, production is concentrated along the winding coast, between Santa Susana and Bras-Panon. In the Comoros archipelago, it is located in Anjouan and Mayotte. The cultivation of vanilla is the reason why the perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain was installed on these islands. They are one of the few places of easy attainment (Union of Comoros), along with the clove, another spice from which vanillin can be manufactured.

New countries have appeared in the vanilla market that have been launched into production, such as Uganda, the State of Kerala in India, Papua New Guinea, the Tonga Islands, etc. Looking for the diversification of agricultural income and a good profit, these new producers are, however, pressured by the uncertainties of a very fluctuating market for a product that needs a precise and rigorous monitoring throughout its production process to achieve a quality spice

China also produces vanilla in Yunnan province.

The Following is a video that show how to make Homemade Vanilla Extract , if you make this at home, you won’t want to have any other kind of  extract… EVER.