History of Vanilla

While Nielsen-Massey Vanillas has been producing vanilla products for over a century, vanilla itself has an even longer history that spans nearly 1,000 years.

Early History – The Totonac People

For hundreds of years, the Totonac people, who lived on the east-central coast of Mexico, were the keepers of this special ingredient. No one outside the region even knew it existed.

Mid-1400s to 1500 – The Aztecs

During this period, the Aztecs conquered the Totonac people and forced them to provide regular tributes. These tributes included the fruits of the Tlilxochitl vine, which we know today as vanilla.

1520 – Cortés the Conquistador

The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in the region and Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, greeted him with an offering of chocolatl (xocolatl). Cortés, astounded by this bold new flavor, demanded to know the ingredients—ground corn, cacao beans, honey and vanilla pods. Despite the warm welcome he received, Cortés nonetheless conquered the Aztecs, ending their reign and their control over vanilla.

1602 – Vanilla by Itself

Cortés brought chocolatl back with him to Europe and, for many years, vanilla was used exclusively in the chocolate drink, consumed as a luxury by the rich. In 1602, Hugh Morgan, an apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, had the brilliant idea to use vanilla as a flavoring by itself. It was the first step toward the popularity vanilla enjoys today.

1793 – Smuggled to the Bourbon Islands

Around 1793, a vanilla vine was smuggled from Mexico to the Bourbon Island of Réunion. For almost 50 years after its arrival at Réunion, the growth and production of vanilla in Madagascar was difficult. The vines grew successfully with beautiful blossoms but seldom resulted in vanilla pods. Without the Melipona bee, which is vanilla’s natural pollinator in Mexico, the flowers were only occasionally pollinated by local insects.

1836 – A Tiny Bee, An Important Discovery

It wasn’t until 1836 that Charles Morren, a Belgian botanist, discovered the pollination link between the Melipona bee and plant.

1841 – The Invention of Hand Pollination

In 1841, Edmond Albius of Réunion developed an efficient method for fertilizing the flower by hand. Using a bamboo stick to lift the thin membrane separating the male organ (anther) from the female organ (stigma) and press the pollen against the stigma.

Thanks to Albius’ method, vanilla could successfully grow to scale in the Bourbon Islands. Cultivation of vanilla began spreading to other countries, including Tahiti and Indonesia. As the supply grew, vanilla became more accessible to all people, not just the rich, eventually becoming world’s most prevalent and popular flavor.

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