Updated: Jul 22, 2019

Vanilla is a spice formed by the fruit of certain tropical vine orchids of Meso-America origin of the genus Vanilla, mainly of the species Vanilla planifolia (flat-leaf).

Vanilla pompona can also be grown for the production of vanilla, its short fruit being also called vanilla. As for Tahitian Vanilla (vanilla from Tahiti) the particular agronomic and aromatic qualities of this cultivar of Vanilla planifolia have long been considered as a distinct variety. The plants grown for the production of vanilla beans are called "vanilla".

These are the only orchids grown for human consumption.

Botanically, the fruits obtained are called "capsules".

To obtain a richly aromatic spice, the cultivation and processing of vanilla or vanilla requires long and careful care by the farmers. In fact, in relation to weight, it is one of the highest value agricultural products in the world.

The history of vanilla is associated with that of chocolate. The Aztecs, and previously the Mayans, had a thick cocoa-based drink with vanilla.

The Aztecs called this drink, destined for nobles and warriors, xocoatl. However, they did not grow either cocoa or vanilla because of an unsuitable climate.

These luxury goods came from a trade with neighbouring regions.

The agronomic knowledge of the plant that produces vanilla was probably lacking because they called the spice tlilxochitl, which means "black flower" whereas it would have been more logical to call it "black fruit".

The Spaniards discovered vanilla in the early sixteenth century on the occasion of their conquest of the American continent.

There is no reason to believe that this spice was brought back from the passage in Central America of the first continental expeditions, notably those of Ojeda and Nicuesa in 1509 or of Núñez de Balboa in Panama in 1513,

Everything, however, suggests that the decisive knowledge of vanilla is indeed related to the arrival of the Spanish in Tenochtitlan, the current Mexico City and the meeting in 1519 of Hernán Cortés with the Aztec emperor Montezuma.

The first artificial pollination of vanilla was carried out in 1836 at the botanical garden of Liège by the Belgian naturalist Charles Morren, then in 1837 by the French horticulturist Joseph Henri François Neumann12. It was only in 1841, however, that a young slave from Bourbon Island (now La Réunion), aged twelve, Edmond Albius, created the practical method still used today.

This method of pollination, of which Jean-Michel-Claude Richard tries to appropriate paternity, makes Bourbon Island the first vanilla centre of the planet only a few decades after the introduction of the orchid on the spot in 1819.

During the abolition of slavery in 1848, the young Edmond is given the surname of Albius, in reference to the colour "white" (alba) of the vanilla flower

Vanilla develops a complex fragrance consisting of several hundred different aromatic compounds. Among these, however, it is the vanillin molecule ( hydroxy-methoxybenzaldehyde ) which forms and dominantly characterizes the aroma of vanilla. The aromatic profile depends on the conditions of cultivation and transformation but also on the cultivars used.

Tahitian vanillas have relatively low vanillin levels. However, this vanilla has a strong coumarin odor.

Vanilla from Tahiti is also richer in various compounds compared to vanilla planifolia.

The preference in the bouquet aromatic will depend on the consumer.

© 2018 Wessel Woortman

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