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The spice orchid

Vanilla not so plain when you find the real thing

I was a young teenager when our neighbours returned from a vacation in Mexico and handed my parents a glass pop bottle which had been washed and refilled with Mexican vanilla extract. I remember their instructions as the bottle, containing a dark brown, almost black liquid, was handed over, "It is very strong, you won’t want to use as much as you would normally and the flavour is a little different from what you are used to."

Uncapped, the aroma, thick, sweet and lusty, quickly filled the room and I was instantly smitten. We tried to make the extract last – it made every dessert exotic and unique – but once finished we were only able to maintain a whisper of its fragrance in the bottle we all agreed not to wash.

Mexico is the birth place of vanilla. It was first cultivated by the Totonac people native to Veracruz. Totonac legend tells of a Princess and her lover who were killed in the jungle, their blood, spilling together, soaked into the fertile ground and sprouted forth the vanilla vine with a flower whose fragrance invokes beauty and true love.

Today, the flavour and aroma of vanilla is a vital ingredient among the food, cosmetic and perfume industries the world over. It is also the second most expensive spice, after saffron.

The Aztecs conquered the Totonac people in 1425 but continued vanilla cultivation. The aromatic bean was used to flavour xocolatl, a cocoa-based drink which was the precursor of chocolate. Hernando Cortes, the Spanish Conquistador, brought Mexican vanilla beans back to Europe in the early 1500s, where they became instantly popular but prohibitively expensive. The word vanilla is actually derived from the Spanish word vainilla, which means little sheath, referring to the long thin shape of the vanilla bean.

To satisfy the growing European demand for vanilla beans, which are the fruit of a willow green coloured orchid, Vanilla planifolia, the climbing vine was introduced into European colonies. The French Islands Bourbon (Reunion) and Tahiti as well as the Dutch-owned Madagascar successfully grew the orchids in plentiful quantities but there was nary a vanilla bean produced among them.

The morphology of the vanilla orchid prevents the flower from pollinating itself – a thin membrane separates the male and female parts, and the natural pollinator, the Melipona bee, is native only to Mexico. Mexico maintained a 300 year monopoly over the world’s vanilla supply.

In 1836, a Belgian botanist, Charles Morren, successfully hand pollinated the orchid at the Liege botanical garden. On La Reunion, five years later, a freed slave named Edmond Albius, discovered a feasible way to manually pollinate flowers using a toothpick-sized bamboo splinter to lift the membrane, the rostellum, and press the anther’s pollen to the stigma. This practice continues to this day.

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