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The History Of Vanilla

Anyone who has done any type of baking is probably familiar with vanilla or, at least, vanilla extract, but are you aware that the history of vanilla goes back to ancient times? It was the Totonac Indians of Mexico who first cultivated this bean. They used it in rituals long before Columbus came to America. It was also used as a medicine and as a perfume. Interestingly enough, they didnít use it for flavoring. It was adopeted by the Aztecs after the Totonacs were conquered in the 15th century. The Aztecs mixed it with chocolate to make their tasty drink chocolatl.

When the Spanish came to Mexico in the 16th century, the Aztecs introduced Cortez to the drink. He brought vanilla and cacao back to Europe where it was enjoyed by only the rich and famous for many years. It wasnít until 1602, that vanilla was actually used as a flavoring all on itís own.

Up until the middle of the 19th century, Mexico was the only producer of Vanilla. However, in 1819, French entrepreneurs tried their hand at cultivating the bean on their own islands. They failed until they came up with a method of hand pollinating the flowers. Only a bee found in certain regions of Mexico would polinate the Vanilla flower. With the French discovery vanilla began to flourish on tropical islands like Mauritius, Madagascar, Reunion Island and the Comoros Islands.

Like many spices in history, vanilla was once very expensive. As supply increased, prices came down, but in 1970 a typhoon struck many of the islands that produce vanilla and, since many plants were lost, the supply went down and prices went up. Prices remained high for 10 years, mainly because the sale of vanilla was controlled by a tight group. Once this group disbanded in the mid 1980ís prices dropped drastically. Then, again, in 2000 another typhoon drove prices up again, which have been steadily decreasing since.

Vanilla grows on a vine and is the fruit of a flower called the Vanilla plan folia. While native to Mexico, today there are 3 other regions that produce vanilla beans. Madagascar is the largest producer, and beans from this region are known as Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, which refers to the Burbon islands where they are grown. The second largest producer is Indonesia. The vanilla from this area is not as sweet as the Madagascar vanilla and not as desirable. The remaining 10 percent of vanilla comes from Mexico and Tahiti.

Today you can find vanilla in virtually everything from ice cream to candles to perfume and it is a staple for baking and puddings, as well as other uses in the kitchen.

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