Vanilla is a flavoring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla native to Mexico. Originally cultivated by Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican peoples, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes is credited with introducing both the spice and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s. Attempts to cultivate the vanilla plant outside Mexico and Central America proved futile because of the symbiotic relationship between the tlilxochitl vine that produced the vanilla orchid and the local species of Melipona bee. In 1841, a 12-year-old French-owned slave by the name of Edmond Albius discovered the plant could be hand pollinated, allowing global cultivation of the plant.
The first to cultivate vanilla were the Totonac people, who inhabit the Mazantla Valley on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the present-day state of Veracruz. According to Totonac mythology, the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew.
Vanilla was completely unknown in the Old World before Columbus. Spanish explorers who arrived on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the early sixteenth century gave vanilla its name. The Spanish and Portuguese sailors and explorers brought vanilla into Africa and Asia in the 16th century. They called it vainilla, or little pod.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron, due the extensive labor required to grow the seed pods used in its manufacture. Despite the expense, it is highly valued for its flavor and is widely used in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacture and aroma therapy.
A major use of vanilla is in flavoring ice cream. The most common flavor of ice cream is vanilla, and thus most people consider it to be the default flavor. By analogy, the term vanilla is sometimes used as a synonym for plain. Although vanilla is a prized flavoring agent on its own, it is also used to enhance the flavor of other substances, to which its own flavor is often complementary, such as chocolate, custard, caramel, coffee etc.
The food industry uses methyl and ethyl vanillin. Ethyl vanillin is more expensive, but has a stronger note. Cook’s Illustrated ran several taste tests pitting vanilla against vanillin in baked goods and other applications, and to the consternation of the magazine editors, tasters could not differentiate the flavor of vanillin from vanilla. However, for the case of vanilla ice cream, natural vanilla won out.
In old medicinal literature, vanilla is described as an aphrodisiac and a remedy for fevers. These purported uses have never been scientifically proven, but it has been shown that vanilla does increase levels of catecholamines including epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline, and as such can also be considered mildly addictive.