To know the history behind the invention of the second-most expensive spice in the world, you must first understand what is vanilla. Firstly, vanilla is not a bean. It is the fruit of orchids belonging to the genus Vanilla. Vanilla orchids are found in a very small number of locations worldwide, with Madagascar accounting for 80% of production. The extraction process of vanilla flavor is very tiresome that includes harvesting, pollination, curing and more, all done by hand. This is why vanilla flavor costs so much and is regarded as the second most expensive spice, behind saffron.
While Madagascar enjoys vanilla crop harvesting the most, its orchids are available in Uganda, Indonesia, French Polynesia and China, among others. The vanilla flavor may differ in different regions according to weather conditions and soil preparedness. But, their comforting flavors like floral, toasty, musky, earthy or even smoky enhances almost every dessert, making vanilla a versatile spice.
Vanilla extraction in the 15th century
As discussed, vanilla belongs to the orchid family and can be found in some 25,000 different species. It is native to Central and South America along with the Caribbeans. The first people who cultivated vanilla belonged to the Totonacs on Mexico’s east coast. In the 15th century, the Totonacs were conquered by the Aztecs and thereafter, the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and acquired it. Another theory says that vanilla was first introduced to western Europe by Hernan Cortes. However, it was covered that time with his other American imports like opossums, armadillos, and an entire team of ballplayers equipped with bouncing rubber balls.
Vanilla made in the 17th century
The Aztecs started consuming vanilla with their chocolate drink and so did Europeans when they found it delicious. In the 17th century, vanilla was regarded as an additive for chocolate drinks until Hugh Morgan, a creative chemist employed by Queen Elizabeth I invented all vanilla-flavored sweets free of chocolates. The queen liked its taste and by the next century, vanilla was used by the French to flavor ice-creams. In the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson found the ice cream so amazing that he copied the recipe in a journal and preserved it in the Library of Congress.
Vanilla in the 18th century
Although people started consuming vanilla in the 15th century, it appeared in the recipe books in the 18th century. As more food creators used vanilla in their recipes, its demand skyrocketed in the latter half of the 18th century. It was not only regarded as the best choice for ice cream but became an essential ingredient for soft drinks like Coca-Cola which started its first sales in 1886.
The price problem with the vanilla
Although vanilla is loved extensively by the world for the past few centuries, the main problem is with its price. Being labor intensive and one of the most expensive spices, it is been extracted by artificial means these days. The original vanilla pods grow like a clinging vine and can reach up to a height of 300 feet. The Mexican people pollinate vanilla by Melipona bees and when they are pollinated, the pods die and fell to the ground. Every vanilla flower remains open for just 24 hours after which they do not pollinate. Given the seed give producers a very limited time to pollinate, most of them die during the pollination process, making the entire process very long.
With time and extensive research, people started pollinating them using sticks and thumbs instead of bees which made the pollinating process easier and quicker. The hand pollination technique is now used by countries worldwide but the rest of the process is still very laborious. Hand-picked vanilla beans are subjected to the curing process when they are ripe. The result, though is aromatic due to the black pods. It takes as long as one month for pods to ripe and open before it undergoes the harvesting and post-harvesting process. Today, the total production of vanilla is about 2000 metric tons which are sadly far away from the overall market demand. Therefore, food scientists made artificial vanillin that imitates the main chemical compound of the vanilla pods extract.
Vanilla flavoring from imitating vanillin
While original vanillin extracted from the vanilla pods has become quite limited and expensive, thus, researchers have developed a cheaper version of vanillin that has vanilla’s characteristic flavor. They are mainly used to give flavors to the food like ice-creams, sweets and chocolate. Today, around 90% of vanillin used for mass manufacturing is not obtained from vanilla pods but because of imitation vanillin. Vanillin can be produced in various ways like wood pulp, the byproduct of processing rice bran oil, biomass, clove extraction or even animals in the form of castoreum excreted from beavers.