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The remarkable origins of natural vanilla, the spice that conquered the world

It is the world’s favourite flavour, but the story of where natural vanilla comes from and how men learned to cultivate it is a strange and fascinating one. It is less than two centuries since vanilla finally left its native Mexico to transform the world of cakes, biscuits and sweets. Read on to find out more.

Like chocolate, vanilla was first introduced to Europe from the Americas by the Conquistador Hernando Cortés in the early 1500s. Since then, it has gone on to become the world’s most popular flavour. However, an estimated 95% of “vanilla-flavoured” products are in fact artificially flavoured with a compound called vanillin, which can be made synthetically. 

Natural vanilla, on the other hand, contains 170 aromatic components besides vanillin, and is significantly harder to obtain. In fact, it’s the world’s second most expensive spice, after saffron.

So where does natural vanilla come from? Believe it not, it is derived from orchids. To be precise, from the seed pods of orchids of the genus Vanilla, primarily the species V. planifolia, first cultivated by the Totonac people of Mesoamerica around 900 years ago.

There is something miraculous about the way the vanilla plant grows. Each flower stays open for just 24 hours and, if not pollinated, it wilts and dies. Moreover, the only natural pollinatoris a particular genus of bee found only in and around Mexico. This explains why for centuries, vanilla was produced exclusively in this part of Latin America.

That changed in 1841, when a 12-year-old slave on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean discovered a way of hand-pollinating the plant, opening up the possibility of cultivation in other regions. Today, much of the world’s natural vanilla comes from Madagascar, where the Bourbon variety used by Pasticceria Marchesi is grown.

When the vanilla flower is successfully pollinated, a 6-inch-long pod develops, containingthousands of tiny black seeds. After harvesting, the pods are left in the sun every day for up to 6 months, shrinking to just 20% of their original size, before the vanilla is extracted.

It’s a highly labour-intensive process. We might call it a labour of love. And you can surely taste the love in every Marchesi 1824 cookie, cream or dessert that contains this enchanted aroma.


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