A Brief History of Vanilla

The Aztec Empire of Southeast Mexico.  [Artist and Publisher unknown]The history of Vanilla planifolia has been traced to Southeast Mexico, where it was first discovered by the Totonaco Indians.  Though many people think of the Aztecs as the first purveyors of vanilla, using it in their well known ‘Choclatl’ beverage, the Aztecs actually acquired it when they conquered the rival Totonaco.  Both, however, believed vanilla to be a food of the Gods.  


Vanilla planifolia was first brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés in 1518.  Before conquering the Aztecs, Cortés and his army witnessed the Aztec emperor, Montezuma,  drinking ‘Choclatl.’  Made from cocoa and flavored with ‘Tlilxochitl’, the Aztec name for cured vanilla beans, Montezuma believed the beverage to hold magical qualities.   Cortés brought the the plant and pods back to Spain, along with cocoa, where it became a treat for rich nobility.  Edmond Albuis, the French slave who discovered the most effective form of Vanilla pollination. [Publisher: Antoine Roussin](Interested in Montezuma's love for chocolate?  Love chocolate a just a little bit yourself?  Take a look at this.)


The Spanish were able to hold a monopoly on vanilla production for centuries because Central American remained the sole habitat of the Melipona bee, the main pollinator of Vanilla planifolia.  It wasn’t until Edmond Albius, a 12 year-old slave in Réunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean, found a way to manually self-pollinate the plant that the plant could be grown elsewhere.  His technique remains the main way Vanilla is hand-pollinated today. 


Even today, vanilla is still relatively rare, with only about 2,200 metric tons of it reaching agricultural markets each year.  Not surprisingly, the highest quality beans could be found going for $275 a pound, as recently as 2004 (Marschall, 2004). 


Now let's take a look at how to identify and classify Vanilla planifolia.
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