Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Vanilla is one of the most popular flavorings in the world. Among the spices it’s unique for the richness, depth, and persistence of its flavor. And it’s the second most costly, after saffron. So in fact most of the vanilla flavoring consumed in the world today is a synthetic imitation of the original spice.

True vanilla comes from the pod fruit, often called the “bean,” of a climbing orchid native to Central and northern South America. There are about 100 species in the tropical genus Vanilla. V. planifolia (or V. fragrans) was first cultivated by the Totonac Indians along the eastern coast of Mexico near Veracruz, perhaps as long as 1,000 years ago. They sent it north to the Aztecs, who flavored their chocolate drinks with it. The first Europeans to taste vanilla were the Spanish, who gave it its name; vainilla is the Spanish diminutive for “sheath” or “husk” (from the Latin vagina). A 19th-century Belgian botanist, Charles Morren, figured out how to pollinate vanilla flowers by hand, and thus made it possible to produce the spice in regions that lacked the proper pollinating insects. And the French took the vine to the islands off the coast of southeast Africa that now supply much of the world: Madagascar, Réunion, and Comoros, which collectively produce what is called Bourbon vanilla.