History of Vanilla:

Hundreds of years ago in the tropical forests of the Aztec kingdom, an ancient people discovered the fruit of a delicate orchid—and a flavor they called vanilla. The Totonaco people of the Vera Cruz region in Mexico were the first to cultivate the divine vanilla crop. They believed the sweet vanilla nectar to be a gift from the gods with a mythology of a pair of fallen lovers whose sacred blood marked the spot where a vigorous vine and a beautiful flower grew to fill the air with the aroma of true love and beauty.

The Aztec monarch, Itzcoatl, conquered the Totonacos in 1427 and immediately came to love the flavor and aroma of the Totonaco’s vanilla. The Aztecs called the prized spice “tlilxochitl “black flower”. They used it to flavor their famous chocolate drink, cacahuatl (chocolate water), made from cocoa beans, ground corn, ground vanilla beans, and honey. The Aztecs required that the Totonaco people grow vanilla as a tribute to the Aztec king, Montezuma.

When Hernán Cortés came to Mexico from Spain, in 1519, he traveled through Vera Cruz where he became intrigued by vanilla. When Cortés and his men arrived in Mexico City, they were graciously greeted by Montezuma who thought Cortés was “Quetzalcóatl” a fair skinned god. Moctezuma served Cortés chocolatll in a golden goblet. Impressed with Moctezuma’s gold and riches, Cortés and his men later conspired to kill the Aztec king, hoping to find more treasures hidden in Montezuma’s palace. Imagine the Spaniards’ disappointment when, instead of chests full of gold, they found bags of cocoa beans.

The Spaniards named their exotic spice “vainilla” meaning “little scabbard” and took it back with them to Spain. Vanilla slowly became popular throughout all of Europe. The French took a particular liking to the flavor and began using it as an ingredient in pastries, cakes and beverages.

The French wanted to grow vanilla for themselves in their colonies where the climate was similar to that of Vera Cruz. They were able to grow healthy plants that blossomed, but were never able to get a bean from the plant. When the Totonaco’s got wind of this, they laughed, and called it the “curse of Moctezuma”.

For 300 years Mexico maintained its monopoly of vanillabean production despite constant efforts of theEuropeans to induce vanilla vines to bear beans elsewhere in the world. It wasn’t until 1836 when Charles Morren, a French botanist, finally discovered the secret of growing vanilla. His careful examination of the anatomy of the bean led to his discovery of the difficulty of pollination. He then performed the pollination by hand. Thus beans were produced outside of Mexico. Knowledge of theartificial pollination spread to European nations who had colonized tropical regions with climates suitable for growing orchids. These areas began planting vanilla especially the French on the Island of Bourbon (Reunion) and the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

Today, vanilla is grown comercially mainly in Madagascar and Indonesia with some production in Mexico, Tonga, French Polynesia, Fiji, Costa Rica, Uganda, India and China.

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