While Nielsen-Massey Vanillas has been producing vanilla products for over a century, vanilla itself has an even more epic history that spans nearly 1,000 years and features conquerers, thievery, important discoveries and a tiny little bee that made it all possible...
Early History - The Totonac Indians
For hundreds of years, the Totonoc Indians who lived on the east-central coast of Mexico were the keepers of this special ingredient. No one else in the world—or at least outside the region—even knew it existed.
Mid-1400s to 1500 - The Aztecs
During this period, the Aztecs conquered the Totonocan people and forced them to provide regular tributes, which included the fruits of the Tlilxochitl vine. Or, as we know it, vanilla.
1520 - Cortez the Conquistador
The Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez arrived in the region with a bang, swiftly conquering the Aztec Indians. In his magnificent banquet hall, Montezuma, the defeated Emperor of the Aztecs, greeted Cortez and offered him a drink of Chocolatl (or Xocolatl) in a golden goblet. Cortez, astounded by this bold new flavor, demanded to know the ingredients. Ground corn. Cacao beans. Honey. And, vanilla pods. Despite the warm and taste-awakening welcome he received, Cortez nonetheless executed Montezuma, ending the Aztecs' reign over Mexico and Central America and its control over vanilla.
1602 - Vanilla by Itself
For many years, vanilla, a luxury of nobility and the rich, was used only as an ingredient in the very popular chocolate drink Cortez brought back from the Americas. But in 1602, Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, had the brilliant idea to use vanilla as a flavoring by itself. It was the first step in the dominant position vanilla now holds today.
1793 - Smuggled to the Bourbon Islands
In about 1793, a vanilla vine was smuggled from Mexico to the island of Réunion. Réunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoro and Seychelles make up the Bourbon Islands (hence the name Madagascar Bourbon vanilla) and are all just east of the southern portion of Africa. The vines grew successfully with beautiful blossoms but vanilla-pod growth was infrequent and unpredictable.
1836 - A Tiny Bee, An Important Discovery
After careful study, Charles Morren, a Belgian botanist, discovered that the vanilla fruit (the bean) wasn't growing because the flower couldn't fertilize itself. In fact, in Mexico, a tiny native bee called the Melipone had been the means of pollination. But outside Mexico, only the rare inadvertent accident resulted in other insects or animals filling this role.
1841 - The Invention of Hand Pollination
Edmond Albious, of Réunion, devised a practical and speedy method of fertilizing the flower by hand. He created a bamboo toothpick-like stick to lift the thin membrane separating the male organ (anther) from the female organ (stigma) and press the pollen against the stigma. Now vanilla could be successfully grown in the Bourbon Islands and eventually spread to other countries, such as Tahiti and Indonesia. As the world supply grew, vanilla became more accessible to all people, not just the rich, and eventually gained the title of the world's most prevalent and popular flavor.
Donkeys deliving beans to
market in Mexico