Posted in Kafevend Blog
Vanilla is a fairly commonplace flavouring these days- who hasn't enjoyed a vanilla ice cream? It may come as a surprise to you then that what you tasted probably wasn't actual vanilla, but an artificial version. Proper vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world behind saffron, thanks to the vine plant being rather highly strung.
Vanilla Planifolia originated in the region of Mesoamerica. Along with Cacao, the first European thought to have discovered it and brought it back to Europe is Hernán Cortés, following his expedition and subsequent conquest of the region in the early 16th century. Attempts were made to grow vanilla in other parts of the globe, but none were successful. The main reason behind this was an issue of pollination.
In the wild, there are very few ways for vanilla to be pollinated. In Mesoamerica, what little pollination occurred was thanks to a particular species of bee, and when attempts were made to grow it abroad, the lack of this type of bee meant that it failed. It took 300 years for the Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren to hit upon the idea of artificially pollinating the vine, though his method was financially unviable. It was the slave Edmond Albius, who, twelve years old at the time, found an efficient method of pollinating them by hand that is still used to this day.
This labour intensive method of hand pollination (which also has to be carried out within a very specific time frame), along with a number of narrow variables for the growth of the plant is why vanilla remains such an expensive product even today.