The Near-Impossible History of Vanilla

Hey there vanilla-lovers,
we're back with another post.
Vanilla Watercolor

This time, we're taking you on a scintillating history of one of our favorite perfume ingredients: vanilla. Throughout this journey, you'll realize just how close we were to losing vanilla forever, never experiencing vanilla in food, cosmetics, perfumes, etc., and how lucky we are to enjoy vanilla's sweet, gourmand scent at Comptoir Sud Pacifique. 

Let's begin with the basics.

Vanilla Flower  Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla is a member of the orchid family with scientific name Vanilla planifolia, and it is native to current-day Mexico and Central America. As you can guess, vanilla thrives in equatorial, tropical climates. 

Vanilla in the Precolombian Americas

Antonio de Pereda, Still Life with Ebony Chest, 1652, Oil on Canvas, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg  Woman Frothing Chocolate, Aztec. Codex Tudelo, ca. 1553.
Left: Antonio de Pereda, Still Life with Ebony Chest, 1652, oil on canvas, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
Right: Woman Frothing Chocolate, Aztec. Codex Tudelo, ca. 1553.

Way before the Columbian invasion of the Americas, the Indigenous Totomac people, then the Aztec and Maya people, of Mesoamerica cultivated vanilla. Rather than enjoy their vanilla as a sumptuous delicacy in itself, it was used as a supporting flavor in the all-popular drinking chocolate or chocolatl. Nowadays, we see chocolate and vanilla dichotomously, but the two work quite well together. Chocolate is also originally from Central and South America, and the historic Indigenous peoples of the region often prepared chocolatl out of cacao pods, maize, water, and additional flavors including chili peppers, dried and ground flowers, honey, or vanilla. Often the drink was poured from a tall height to create a frothed-gruel texture, and it was stored in earthenware clay pots depicted in the still life. And before you turn your nose up, note that an entire material culture was formed in relation to chocolatl: chocolate pots, still lives, and diagrams in codices (like the above), and more were made that attest to the importance of drinking chocolate, and vanilla's place within it, in historic Mesoamerica. 

Chocolatl and Vanilla in Early-Modern Europe

The European invaders grew to like chocolatl so much that chocolate and vanilla were brought back to Europe from the Americas along with silver, corn, cochineal, and other prized raw materials. Then, between 1600 and 1836 when the vanilla orchid was in Europe, it never produced pods from its flowers, resulting in no usable vanilla. A Belgian botanist and horticulturist, Charles Morren, discovered that a very specific bee, the Melipona bee, was needed to pollinate the finnicky vanilla. The only problem? The bee was only found in Central and South America.

Edmond Albius's Discovery

Edmond Albius  Historic Vanilla Plantation
Left: Edmond Albius
Right: A historic Vanilla Plantation

In 1836 on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, 12-year-old Edmond Albius (an enslaved boy), discovered the solution. His solution did not require the pollinating power of the Melipona bee, but rather a stick and a thumb. Though it sounds simple, the process is so labor-intensive such that vanilla is the world's second most expensive spice by weight after saffron. How do you do it? With a stick in hand, you have to lift the membrane separating the male and female parts of the vanilla orchid, then push them together with your thumb and forefinger. Oh, and all of this must happen in the first 24 hours after blooming. 

Vanilla Pollination  Vanilla Pollination
Hand-pollination of vanilla.

The Process

Regardless of the difficulty, vanilla transplants in Europe, tropical islands, and elsewhere around the world could now produce the prized fruit: vanilla. Once manually pollinated, the base of the vanilla flower will swell into vanilla beans or fruits. After being harvested, the beans are sorted, blanched, and then put into containers to sweat for 36-48 hours. This is when the vanilla beans turn from green to brown. For the next 5-15 days, the vanilla beans sun dry in the daytime, and sweat at nighttime. For the next and final step, there is a 30-day slow-drying process before vanilla pods as we know them are ready. This entire process of growing, pollinating, drying, curing, and preparing for export takes about 1 year. 5-7 pounds of green vanilla turns into 1 pound of processed vanilla.


Alas, the near-impossible history of vanilla continues to this day. Only 200 metric tons of vanilla are produced yearly from the top vanilla producers of Madagascar, Réunion, India, Tahiti, Indonesia and more. Most of the vanilla we consume now is Vanillin, a synthetic molecule. No matter the type, let us all rejoice that we have vanilla — that somehow this long, arduous journey resulted in our glorious, and vanilla-rich society today.

Sho Vanilla Scents

With love,
Your Pen Pal from Paradise

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