The next time you enjoy a vanilla ice cream cone, consider the fact that the price of natural vanilla is currently in the neighborhood of $300 per pound, which means the two scoops on your cone are a big bargain. There are actually more than 18,000 different products available today which contain some form of vanilla to flavor them, and to entice buyers to purchase their share of the fascinating spice. Vanilla spice has a history every bit as long and as fascinating as that of its sister spice, chocolate. Both were enjoyed in antiquity, and both continue to enthrall the masses today. Here is a condensed version of the long history of Madagascar vanilla beans.
Vanilla beans and Madagascar
It's fairly surprising that the world's largest producer of vanilla beans is Madagascar, especially since the plant is not native to the country, but actually originated at a location around 10,000 miles distant. It's also amazing that such a large industry has sprung up in Madagascar because conducting any kind of business in the country can be extremely chaotic. Given that the country is largely poverty-stricken, there's a tremendous amount of intrigue associated with growing this popular and profitable plant.
The production of vanilla in Madagascar is responsible for all kinds of nefarious activities like money laundering, theft, and even murder. That's in addition to the natural disasters that typically plague the country, as well as the complete razing of formerly pristine forests for cultivation. Vanilla is currently the second most expensive spice in the entire world, behind only saffron.
There are well over 100 different species of vanilla, and they will all thrive in regions around the equator. The plants produce a wide variety of fruits, most of which appear to be elongated and much like bananas or very large beans. There are literally tens of thousands of orchids, which the vanilla bean is derived from, but of all those thousands, vanilla is the only plant which produces an edible fruit.
The act of pollinating vanilla plants is extraordinarily difficult, especially since the plant only produces flowers for a few hours of time each year, and pollination must take place during that very brief window. To this day, it is still not clearly understood how vanilla plants get pollinated in a natural setting, although it is believed to be facilitated by various types of bees and hummingbirds.
Pollination is far more successful when carried out by a painstaking manual method which was developed in the middle of the 19th century, and which is still in use today. Let's take a look at the history of the vanilla plant, and how it came to achieve its status as the main cash crop of the country of Madagascar.
Vanilla in ancient civilizations
Vanilla enjoyed widespread usage by the Aztecs and the Totonac Indians for many of their ceremonies as well as in some of their consumed beverages. It was especially popular in drinks coupled with chocolate. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, they took the plant back to Europe with them along with chili peppers, tomatoes, chocolate, and a great many other foodstuffs developed by the Aztecs.
Once in Europe, a great many more uses were found for vanilla, primarily when combining it with sugarcane from the West Indies. This allowed for the creation of a tremendous number of new vanilla desserts which found favor with the upper-class, since they were the only ones who could afford vanilla desserts. This is the period when a great many of today's vanilla desserts were developed, including crème brûlée, vanilla ice cream, and many other tasty delights tinged with the vanilla flavor.
While Spain had a total monopoly on vanilla, growing the plant was still extremely difficult. It wasn't that the plant couldn't be cultivated or grown properly, because the vines grew just fine most of the time, and very often even thrived. But they rarely produced any fruit, and it's the fruit which gives rise to the vanilla flavor craved by everyone. The big breakthrough in vanilla production occurred on an island off the coast of Madagascar which at that time was called Ile de Bourbon, and is now called Reunion.
At that time, the island was a French colony, and it was responsible for being the first location in the world to host large-scale vanilla production. In 1841, the problem which had troubled the brightest minds in Europe – how to pollinate the plant so it would reproduce – was actually solved by a 12-year-old slave boy named Edmond Albius. This young boy was known to be extremely intelligent and he had a natural gift for tending plants, so it wasn't surprising that his keen insights led him to develop a consistent method for pollination.
Vanilla flowers are hermaphroditic, meaning they contain both male and female reproductive organs. When these two organs come in contact, they can begin producing a fruit almost immediately. The problem is that there is a thin membrane which separates the two organs, and this effectively prevents fertilization from occurring. The young boy realized that when he pierced the flower with a sharp piece of wood, he was able to direct that membrane out of the way. That allowed him to use his fingers to push the two reproductive organs together, so that fertilization could take place.
Albius himself never made a dime from his discovery, but others made billions of dollars as a direct result of his fertilization technique. Given the fact that the technique had been developed on an island near Madagascar, it was only natural that the same weather could give rise to large-scale production on Madagascar itself.
The country of Mexico quickly adopted the fertilization technique, and became the largest producer of vanilla in the world. However, that status was short-lived when oil was discovered in the lands where the vanilla plants had formerly been thriving. This led to widespread deforestation and oil drilling, and the vanilla industry in Mexico was effectively killed off. That left Madagascar as the reigning champion of the world for natural vanilla production, which is a fact that remains true to the present day.