Tlilxochitl : A Colonial Vanilla Story

According to popular belief, the Totonac people, who inhabit the east coast of Mexico in the present-day state of Veracruz, were the first to cultivate vanilla. According to Totonac mythology, the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew. In the 15th century, Aztecs invading from the central highlands of Mexico conquered the Totonacs, and soon developed a taste for the vanilla pods. They named the fruit tlilxochitl, or "black flower", after the matured fruit, which shrivels and turns black shortly after it is picked. Subjugated by the Aztecs, the Totonacs paid tribute by sending vanilla fruit to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. A drawing of the Vanilla plant appears in the Florentine Codex (circa 1580) with a description of its use and properties written in the Nahuatl language.

With the arrival of Europeans whose main purpose was to find species, attempts to cultivate vanilla outside Mexico and Central America were abundant but futile. This was because of the symbiotic relationship between the vanilla orchid and its natural pollinator, the local species of Melipona bee. Thus, until the mid-19th century, Mexico was the chief producer of vanilla. In 1819, French entrepreneurs traveled to Mexico to ship vanilla fruits to the French colony islands of Réunion and Mauritius in hopes of capitalizing from the production of vanilla. This was a common colonial practice with all the products of the new world who experienced a commercial boom in Europe.

By 1837, the Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren published as a discovery that it was this specific pollination what was missing in the failed production of vanilla. Without pollination there is no vanilla. He developed a method of artificially pollinating the plant. The method proved financially unworkable and was not deployed commercially. In 1841, Edmond Albius, an enslaved Black child who lived on the French colony island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, realized at the age of 12 that the plant could be hand-pollinated. After close inspection of the vanilla orchid Vanilla planifolia, Albius figured out how to hand-pollinate its flower to produce vanilla beans. The child used a stick to push up a flap in the orchid flower called the rostellum and press the pollen-coated anther against the female part, or stigma. After the Albius method to pollinate the flowers quickly by hand, the pods began to thrive. His owner presented Albius' method to other French plantation owners. Soon, the tropical orchids were sent to the French colonies of Réunion, Comoros Islands, Seychelles, and Madagascar, along with instructions for pollinating them. By 1898, the French colonies of Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros Islands produced 200 metric tons of vanilla beans, about 80% of world production. This development not only displaced Mexico as a producer of Vanilla, but also established a new cultural association. Applied in several sweet dishes in French Cuisine, Vanilla became associated with the delicacies of this Kitchen.

Nowadays Vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron because growing the vanilla seed pods is labor-intensive. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, Indonesia is currently responsible for the vast majority of the world's Bourbon vanilla production and 58% of the world total vanilla fruit production.

It didn’t take long for vanilla demand to exceed supply from the farms of Madagascar. In the 1800s and 1900s, chemists took over from botanists to expand supply of the flavor. Vanillin, the main flavor component of cured vanilla beans, was synthesized variously from pine bark, clove oil, rice bran, and lignin. An estimated 95% of "vanilla" products are artificially flavored -with vanillin derived from lignin instead of vanilla fruits. The French company Rhône-Poulenc, now Solvay, commercialized a pure petrochemical route in the 1970s. In recent years, of the roughly 18,000 metric tons of vanilla flavor produced annually, about 85% is vanillin synthesized from the petrochemical precursor guaiacol. Most of the rest is from lignin.

Following demand, flavor companies are searching for additional sources of natural vanillin and launch initiatives to boost the quality and quantity of bean-derived vanilla. Companies such as the German Symrise, the US American International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), the French Solvay, and the Norwegian Borregaard are using the full spectrum of natural to synthetic to arrive to different vanilla flavors for each product.

Cured vanilla beans contain only 2% of extractable vanilla flavor, meaning prices for pure vanilla are high, reaching up to $11,000 per kg. Pre-2012 the cost was of $25 per kg of beans or $1,250 for vanilla. According to the German Symrise, which sources natural vanilla and supplies synthetic vanillin, 18,000 global products contain vanilla flavor.

Vanilla is among the most challenging flavors to match because the vanilla wheel has dozens of flavors.”

A flavor wheel is how the food community tracks the specific attributes of an ingredient, food, or beverage. The vanilla wheel used by the flavor company Fona International measures fully 29 distinct flavor characteristics. They are grouped into 10 main categories: smoky, spicy, botanical, sulfury, sweet, creamy, medicinal, cooked, fatty, and floral.


Spanish colonizers arriving on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the early 16th century gave vanilla its current name. The word vanilla, derived from the diminutive of the Spanish word vaina (vaina itself meaning a sheath for holding a sword, knife or large blade, or a seeds pod), is translated simply as "little pod". The Spanish head colonizer of Mexico, Hernán Cortés, is credited with introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s.

Spanish and Portuguese sailors and explorers brought vanilla into Africa and Asia later that century. They called it vainilla, or "little pod". The word vanilla entered the English language in 1754, when the botanist Philip Miller wrote about the genus in his Gardener’s Dictionary. Vainilla is from the diminutive of vaina, from the Latin vagina (sheath) to describe the shape of the pods.

In 1836, botanist Charles François Antoine Morren was drinking coffee on a patio in Papantla (in Veracruz, Mexico) and noticed black bees flying around the vanilla flowers next to his table. He watched their actions closely as they would land and work their way under a flap inside the flower, transferring pollen in the process. Within hours, the flowers closed and several days later, Morren noticed vanilla pods beginning to form. Morren immediately began experimenting with hand pollination. A few years later in 1841, a simple and efficient artificial hand-pollination method was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion, a method still used today. Using a beveled sliver of bamboo, an agricultural worker lifts the membrane separating the anther and the stigma, then, using the thumb, transfers the pollinia from the anther to the stigma. The flower, self-pollinated, will then produce a fruit. The vanilla flower lasts about one day, sometimes less, so growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a labor-intensive task.
Esta creció como planta trepadora, llegando a alcanzar alturas de hasta 90 metros. Las trepadoras crecieron bien fuera de México, pero no produjeron fruta, en la forma de vainas de vainilla. Entonces los horticultores descubrieron lo que faltaba. El polen de una flor de orquídea vainilla es inaccesible para la mayoría de los insectos, incluidas las abejas melíferas típicas. La pequeña abeja Melipona, que vive solo en México, era la única capaz de alcanzar el polen de la vainilla para fertilizar las flores. Polinización manual Aún así, confiar solo en las abejas para la polinización puede ser impredecible ya que las pálidas orquídeas blancas florecen solo un día cada año y la flor solo es fértil durante entre 8 y 12 horas después de la floración. En Reunión, un niño esclavo llamado Edmond Albius inventó una meticulosa forma de polinizar manualmente. Se usa un palillo delgado y afilado para levantar la frágil membrana entre las partes masculina y femenina de la flor, que entonces son presionadas entre sí para que ocurra la polinización. Esto tiene que hacerse en cada una de las flores de cada planta para poder producir el fruto: las vainas de vainilla que contienen miles de pequeñísimas semillas que eventualmente veremos en nuestros helados de vainilla de alta calidad. Vainas Las vainas verdes comienzan a fermentarse rápidamente, así que deben encontrarse compradores pronto. BBC MUNDO/Fellipe Abreu Los agricultores de Madagascar tienen que revisar sus plantas cada mañana. Si a un agricultor se le escapa la ventana de fertilización en una flor, o daña la planta, entonces perderá las preciadas vainas. Se necesitan unas 600 flores polinizadas a mano para producir solo 1 kilo de vainas de vainilla curadas. Después de la polinización, deben pasar nueve meses para que las vainas de vainilla maduren. Y entonces se hace la cosecha. Las vainas, todavía verdes, comienzan a fermentarse rápidamente, así que deben encontrarse compradores pronto. Los pequeños agricultores por lo general venden vainas verdes a los intermediarios, quienes recogen grandes cantidades para vender a los exportadores locales. En este punto, las vainas todavía no tienen su característico olor o sabor a vainilla. El laborioso viaje, desde la polinización hasta el curado y secado y después la preparación para exportación, toma casi un año. El producto final es una vaina de vainilla con un fuerte aroma, de color marrón negruzco, muy arrugada, que es suave, blanda y curtida cuando se le toca.