Vanilla is a seed pod cultivated from an orchid which grows 23 degrees either side of the equatorial belt.
It is widely thought that vanilla originated in Papantla (near Vera Cruz, in Mexico). Papantla is known as ‘the city that perfumed the world’.
The Totonac Indians of Mexico were early fans. They called it ‘Tlilxochitl’ (try asking for that in a shop!). Vanilla was first brought to Europe in 1520 by Spanish explorers.
Elizabeth 1st was introduced to the exotic flavour by her apothecary and found it so irresistible that she subsequently demanded that it be used in many of her meals. In nature, the vanilla orchid is pollinated by animals native to Mexico such as Malipona bees and hummingbirds. Elsewhere, growers must meticulously hand-pollinate individual plants, a process invented by a slave named Edmond Albius in 1841.
The time period between planting and eating is normally around 4.5 years, and the plant’s vines can grow up to an impressive 75 feet long. Often referred to as ‘black gold’, some Madagascan pods bear a unique tattoo to identify the grower and to prevent theft.