Vanilla is a flavoring derived from orchids in the genus Vanilla native to Mexico. The name "vanilla" comes from the Spanish word "vainilla", meaning "little pod". The vanilla beans are also referred to as pods or "black flower", after the mature bean, which shrivels and turns black shortly after it is picked.
The history of vanilla starts with the ancient Totonaco Indians of Mexico. They were the first keepers of the secrets of vanilla. They inhabited the Mazantla Valley on the Gulf Coast of Mexico near present-day Vera Cruz. According to Totonaca 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 fifteenth century Aztecs, from the central highlands of Mexico, conquered the Totonac and the conquerors soon developed a taste for the vanilla bean. Whereas most tribes paid tribute to the Aztecs in the form of maize or gold, the Totonaca sent vanilla beans to the Aztec kings. The Totonaco were demanded to relinquish their exotic fruit of the Tlilxochitl vine, the vanilla beans.
History repeated itself when, in turn, the Aztecs were defeated by the conquering Spaniard, Hernando Cortez, he returned to Spain with the precious plunder - vanilla beans - which were combined with cacao to make an unusual and pleasing drink. For eighty years, this special beverage was only enjoyed by the nobility and the very rich.
In 1602, Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, suggested that vanilla could be used as a flavoring all by itself, and the versatility of the exotic bean was finally fully uncovered.
Historically, until the mid-19th century, Mexico was the chief producer of vanilla. In 1819, however, French entrepreneurs shipped vanilla beans to the Réunion and Mauritius islands with the hope producing vanilla there. After Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave from Réunion Island, discovered how to pollinate the flowers quickly by hand, the pods began to thrive. The French developed large vanilla plantations on Reunion, known then as the Ile de Bourbon, which is how the name Bourbon vanilla came into being. Soon the tropical orchids were sent from Réunion Island to the Comoros Islands and Madagascar along with instructions for pollinating them. By 1898, Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros Islands produced 200 metric tons of vanilla beans, about 80 percent of world production.
Today, vanilla plants are grown in five main areas of the world. Each region produces vanilla beans with distinctive characteristics and attributes. Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa, is the largest producer of vanilla beans in the world and the ensuing vanilla is known as Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. The term Bourbon applies to beans grown on the Bourbon Islands - Madagascar, Comoro, Seychelle and Reunion. Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans are considered to be the highest quality pure vanilla available, described as having a creamy, sweet, smooth, mellow flavor. Indonesia is the second largest producer of vanilla beans, with a vanilla that is woody, astringent and phenolic. Madagascar and Indonesia produce 90 percent of the world's vanilla bean crop. Mexico, where the vanilla orchid originated, now produces only a small percentage of the harvest. Mexican vanilla beans are described as creamy, sweet, smooth and spicy. Tahitian vanilla beans, grown from a different genus of vanilla orchid, is flowery and fruity, anisic and smooth. Last but not least is vanilla in India. In recent years India has significantly expanded its vanilla cultivation. It is now cultivating nearly 24,000 hectors of vanilla plants and major yields are expected from the year 2007 onwards. Vanilla plants are cultivated in the southern states of India, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh.
The market price of vanilla beans rose dramatically in the late 1970s, due to a typhoon. Prices stayed stable at this level through the early 1980s despite the pressure of introduced Indonesian vanilla beans. In the mid 1980s, the cartel that had controlled vanilla bean prices and distribution since its creation in 1930 disbanded. Prices dropped 70 percent over the next few years, to nearly $20 USD per kilo. This changed, due to typhoon Huddah, which struck early in the year 2000. The typhoon, political instability, and poor weather in the third year drove vanilla beans prices to an astonishing $500 USD per kilo in 2004. A good crop, coupled with decreased demand, have pushed the market price down to the $40 per kilo range in the middle of 2005. The prices currently are around the $60 per kilo for the A-grade vanilla beans.