You might be surprised to learn that the vanilla beans harvested today are actually the seed pods which come from a very specific type of orchid, and the vanilla orchid is the only species of its kind which bears fruit. This species of orchid originally came from Mexico and was taken back to Europe by Spanish explorers. It became very popular in Europe, and spread around the world from there, until it achieved its present-day popularity.
In 16th century Europe, the primary usage for vanilla was as a flavoring in chocolate. Then in 1602 pastry chef Hugo Morgan suggested to Queen Elizabeth I that she might really appreciate the natural flavor of vanilla. When she tried it, she did indeed really enjoy the flavor, and vanilla became a star at the royal court. By the year 1750, vanilla had spread all throughout Europe and was available in Paris in the form of vanilla ice cream, as well as in vanilla-flavored pastries. By this time, all upper-class homes were enjoying vanilla-flavored treats.
Difficulty of pollination
When it was first cultivated intentionally, it was recognized that there was a great deal of difficulty in producing vanilla beans, because this particular type of vanilla orchid could not easily be kept alive, without being pollinated by a particular type of bee. However, in 1841 a 12-year-old boy by the name of Edmond Albius discovered something very interesting about the pollination process. This young boy was enslaved and lived on the island of Bourbon which is approximately 500 miles east of Madagascar.
His discovery was that he could actually pollinate the orchid by hand, with the use of a needle or a sliver of wood. This removed the hit-or-miss aspect of being pollinated by bees, and made the whole process much more certain. In fact, that is still how these plants are pollinated in present times, one flower at a time, using a painstaking manual method. But that isn't the end of the difficulty.
Following the delicate pollination process, a vanilla farmer is obliged to wait for the pod to darken and become riper so that it can be harvested. Once harvested, the pods will be washed, sorted, cured, and allowed to age for a month or longer, and things can go wrong at any one of these stages. Plants which survive this entire ordeal might be ready for kitchen usage a full year after they've been harvested.
There are only a few regions of the world today where vanilla beans can be grown, and all of them are in tropical climates. The vanilla beans most highly sought after are Bourbon vanilla beans, named after that island where young Edmond discovered the pollination process. Bourbon vanilla is prized for its buttery and fruity taste, and is now grown on an island which has acquired the modern name of Reunion. Madagascar vanilla is a close second to Bourbon vanilla, and is sometimes mistakenly labeled as Bourbon vanilla.
Mexican vanilla beans are generally the most slender of modern vanilla beans, and carry sweet notes with just a hint of smokiness. During the French colonial era, vanilla growers on Madagascar initiated the practice of branding their beans with proprietary designs so they could be identified if stolen. Even after vanilla beans are cured and dried, these small logos are still visible and can help identify their owners.
Today, vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the entire world after saffron. Many people now try to stretch out their usage of vanilla pods by making homemade vanilla extract, and in some cases vanilla sugar. Anything that will retain the flavor of the original vanilla bean, has already been tried and made into an effective process by vanilla lovers all over the world.
As recently as the mid-1990s, vanilla was bought and sold on the open market for approximately $9 per pound. However, due to climate change, prevailing drought conditions, and outraged vanilla bean farmers, those prices have been steadily rising ever since.
At the current time, Bourbon vanilla beans cost a whopping $170 per pound, which has caused users all around the world to sometimes use synthetic vanilla, and also to stretch out natural vanilla as far as it can go. Even leftover pods are now used to provide a flavorful infusion in drinks and foods, and they're also sometimes ground up for use in other applications such as baking recipes.