Vanilla is known as the Spices Queen, mainly because of the time and requirements needed for its preparation. This spice is comparable with wine or chocolate, and will not reveal itself in the same way depending on its terroir. But from where it comes from and how it is arrived in our cooking?
Today we can count three commercialized botanical species:
- Planifolia vanilla, the most common species (Mexico, Reunion, Comoros, Madagascar, Uganda, Tanzania, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tonga…) which the main component is vanillin;
- Tahitensis vanilla (French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea) mainly composed with heliothrope (anis component);
- Pompona vanilla called vanillon, with strong coumarin notes. It is almost disappeared.
Vanilla story, the beginning
It was Totonacs, occupants from the coastal areas in Mexico around the current cities of Veracruz and Papantla, who produced vanilla (Planifolia species) and supplied the Aztec empire. Spanish discovered vanilla at the beginning of XVI century during their conquests of America. Knowledge of vanilla is due to the arrival of Spanish in Tenochtitlan, actual Mexico city and to the meeting in 1519 between Hernan Cortes and the emperor Moctezuma II, whom Sahagun describes the habits and particularly the use of vanilla to perfume its chocolate mix with honey, corn and pepper.
For more than two centuries, in XVII and XVIII centuries, Mexico kept the monopole of vanilla.
Brought at the Spanish court, vanilla provoked a real enthusiasm in Europe. It was especially appreciated in France In 1692, a Royal Edict established in France a monopoly of the sale of Vanilla. Under the charm, Louis XIV decided to try its culture in the greenhouses of Museum of Paris. The diverse attempts realized under his reign failed.
Vanilla is also signalled in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyana in 1724 (Pompona species).
Vanilla was cultivated for a long time in Guadeloupe and in Martinique, but with the focus on sugar cane and banana agricultures, it almost disappeared – to be replaced by importations.
At the beginning of XIX century, vanilla arrived in Bourbon (Reunion island), three origins are still a debate subject:
- Cayenne in 1819 (Mister Pierre-Henri Philibert expedition and Perrotet botanist). Botanical specie « Vanilla Guyanensis » or « Vanilla Pompona » called « big vanilla »
- Manilla in 1820 (Mister Philibert and Perrotet expedition). Botanical specie « Planifolia » called « small vanilla »
- Cutting from Mexico vanilla brought in 1822 from Paris Museum by Mister Marchant. Botanical specie “Planifolia” called “small vanilla”
If vanilla was present in Bourbon Island since 1819, it was not exploited, as no fruit appeared. Indeed, sexual organs from the plant are separated from each other by a plant membrane which complicates their union. Vanilla was pollinated in Mexico by a small insect called “Mélipone”, which by gathering nectar unified the sexual organs of the flower.
It is only in 1841, that Edmond Albius, a botanist slave on the Reunion Island discovered how to manually pollinate vanilla flowers with a method which is still used.
And what about Tahitensis vanilla? The hypothesis was moved forward, from 1951, by a hybridization of both species Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla pompona which would be already crossed of Vanilla Odorata itself. The vanilla Odorata is a very rare vanilla which we find in the forests of Belize (in the South of Mexico) and of Guatemala and it has never been cultivated.
It is in 1848, that Admiral Hamelin imported in Tahiti the plants of Vanilla Odorata and two years later Admiral Bonnard imported plants of vanilla Planifolia. These two varieties of plants would have been exported by Spanish galleons towards the Philippines. It is in the 19th century when the latter crossed again the Pacific and were imported in Tahiti in 1848 by General Hamelin and on 1850 by Admiral Bonnard. The hybridization of these two species gave birth to the Tahitensis species.
Vanilla fertilization today
Mélipone being an endemic species in Mexico, the fertilization is made thanks a thorn or of a point of bamboo. With this instrument, the plant membrane is torn. Genital organs are then married by a pressure of fingers.
Every flower must be fertilized in the morning, at the risk of letting it fade. Each will give birth to a pod. A worker fertilizes 1 000 in 1 500 flowers a day.