Vanilla is the fruit of the Vanillia planifolia orchid, which requires constant care and attention. It’s a vine that grows on a stake or up a tree like a mango or an avocado tree. It only flowers 3 years after planting and then a further 8 months go by before the pod ripens for harvest. Its production is carried out solely by hand and requires great patience, care and dedication. The pods are first scalded, sweated, dried in the sun for two weeks, flattened by hand, then dried in the dark for 8 months in crates and then sorted.
Vanilla comes from Mexico, where the Aztecs used it to sweeten the bitterness of chocolate. This "black flower" was introduced by Cortès in 1521. Louis XIV was a great lover of vanilla and wanted to grow it on La Réunion island (then called île Bourbon). The vine flowered but never bore fruit outside of its natural habitat, as it needed to be pollinated by the Mexican Melipona bee. It was not until 1850 that a slave from La Réunion, Edmond Albius, discovered how to pollinate the flower manually. To thank him for this wonderful discovery he was set free. Once free he took the name Albius referring to the white color (alba) of the vanilla orchid.