The spice vanilla is the seedpod of an orchid vine indigenous to the tropics of Central America. Vanilla planifolia, native to Mexico, is the predominant vanilla harvested for the spice, though there are several different cultivars, some using different species – none match Vanilla planifolia for flavor.
French vanilla is ordinary vanilla spice historically made into an ice cream using eggs, which richen the flavor and give it a deeper yellow, owing to egg yolks within.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to taste vanilla, on 14 September 1502, when he shared a cup of chocolate with a local tribal chieftain in Nicaragua, on his 4th and final voyage to the New World. Columbus’ chocolate drink was laced with vanilla, which was its traditional role as a spice. The Spanish took vanilla home and drank it like Nicaraguan natives: in chocolate.
It was not until 1602 that vanilla was appreciated on its own. Hugh Morgan, apothecary at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, discovered vanilla as a pleasant sweetener of candies on its own.
Early attempts in the 19th century to cultivate vanilla outside Mexico floundered. To grow pods, vanilla requires a specific bee pollinator. Commercially grown vanilla lacks the bee and so must be pollinated manually.
The difficulty of growing vanilla made it an expensive spice, 2nd only to saffron. Madagascar is now the world’s largest producer of vanilla, followed by Indonesia, which grows an inferior cultivar.
Vanillin is primarily responsible for the flavor of vanilla. Piperonal, a related compound, adds to the scent of vanilla oil.
Vanillin was first isolated from vanilla pods in 1858. By 1874, it had been synthesized from glycosides of pine tree sap. This temporarily caused a depression in the natural vanilla industry.
Seedpod extract is a complex mixture of several hundred compounds. Synthetic vanilla is a much simpler solution set in ethanol.
Vanilla makes a modest antioxidant contribution and has a bit of B vitamin content. Vanilla’s flavor exceeds its nutritional contribution.