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The History of Vanilla

Some people use the word ‘vanilla’ to describe something bland or boring.

Oh, how wrong they are!

With more than 170 flavonoids packed into each tiny seed, pure vanilla is one of the most complex flavours our taste buds will ever encounter.

The only thing that can rival the complexity of its flavour is the history of vanilla itself. It’s a fascinating story that includes:

  • A rare Mexican hummingbird
  • The Mayans’ favourite way to cool down during a long day of decapitations
  • Colonial conquest
  • French confectionary secrets
  • And the green thumb of a 12-year-old slave on a lonely island in the middle of the Indian Ocean

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start with the basics…

What is vanilla?

Vanilla is a member of the orchid family. Humans have learned to extract its unique flavour by curing and drying its seed pods, which makes them the only edible fruit of all 35,000+ orchids species.

Vanilla is notoriously difficult to cultivate. It requires a tropical climate to grow, and each flower blooms for only one day. If it is not pollinated, no seed pod will form.

There are two types of vanilla — Mexican vanilla (V. Planifolia) and Tahitian vanilla (V. Tahitensis).

Mexican vanilla is the type you are likely familiar with. It is also called Bourbon vanilla and is mostly grown in Madagascar (go figure!). Its Tahitian cousin (the kind we sell) is mainly grown in Papua New Guinea and boasts a far more subtle flavour, tempering the distinct vanilla flavour with fruity, floral and sweet notes that are favoured by pastry chefs and true connoisseurs the world over.

The history of vanilla:

Where does vanilla come from?

Orchids are one of the oldest species of flowering plants. The Vanilla Orchid evolved in Mexico, Central America and the Northern Part of South America.

Because the flower is so delicate, the critical task of pollination can only be carried out by a stingless species of black bee and a rare hummingbird with a tongue as long as its body. The chances of natural pollination are less than 1%. That’s a lot of flavour gone to waste.

Vanilla was first used by the Aztecs to uplift the bitter flavour of xocoatl, their favourite chocolate drink.

When the Spanish conquered Mexico, they tasted vanilla at the court of Montezuma and, naturally, fell in love with it. They took it back with them to Europe where its popularity exploded.

The culinarily-inclined French literally couldn’t get enough and planned to grow it on their tropical island colonies — Mauritius, Rèunion and French Polynesia.

For decades, the French were unsuccessful in their attempt to grow vanilla as there were no natural pollinators of the plant in its new home. That is until a man named Edmund Albius revolutionised the process.

Hand Pollination

Edmund was an orphaned slave who worked in a plantation on the island of Rèunion. From a young age, he was fascinated by botany and would shadow the plantation owner as he walked the grounds and tended to his plants.

When Edmund was 12 years old, he discovered a technique to hand pollinate the vanilla orchid using a sliver of bamboo and his thumb. Using this precise method, Edmund was able to produce vanilla pods from every flower that bloomed that season. He travelled all over Rèunion, Mauritius and even as far as Madagascar sharing his knowledge and skills.

He was the person who pioneered this technique, as well as the large-scale cultivation process of removing the pod at the correct time and ageing it like a fine wine to bring out the distinctive flavour and colour of vanilla.

We still use Edmund’s technique today, and it has allowed for the seductive flavour of this stubborn plant to be grown all over the world. From Madagascar to Indonesia and, now, Papua New Guinea.

Enter Native Vanilla

Unfortunately, in the centuries following Edmund’s discovery, the production of vanilla has been marred by theft, violence and exploitation due to it being such a valuable cash crop. Pound for pound, the tiny black seeds are worth more than silver!

We at Native Vanilla plan to change the course of this history. We want to ensure that pure vanilla remains pure, by only selling products that are ethically sourced and fair trade.

Our company deals with micro-farmers in Papua New Guinea that we have known personally for many years. No scheming middlemen here. Our friends use organic methods to grow and cure vanilla to the highest standards which we then package with premium sustainable material.

The results show. Chefs around the world swear by our premium quality vanilla. Try it for yourself, and we can make history together. Have a look at our vanilla gifts and products, such as vanilla beans, vanilla extract, vanilla paste, vanilla powder and vanilla sugar.

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