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Why Couldn’t You Grow Vanilla Beans in Europe Before?

One of the most iconic and delicious Italian desserts, Panna Cotta, is made from cream, sugar, milk, rum, marsala, gelatin, and vanilla. It is one of the desserts one would definitely order when in Italy. What if vanilla wasn’t available in the region? Will it taste the same? 

Europeans struggled to grow vanilla beans when it was first introduced from South America. In 1836, they discovered that certain bee species were needed to pollinate vanilla seeds successfully. These bees came from Mexico.

The History of Vanilla

The earliest known origin of the vanilla flower was from the Totonac people who lived on the east coast of Mexico. It is unclear when they first discovered and used the flower as an ingredient, but in the 15th century, the Aztecs learned to use vanilla when they conquered the Totonac people. (Source: National Geographic)

The Totonac were forced to pay tributes to the Aztecs. Part of their tributes were the fruits of the Tlilxochitl vine. In the following years, a Spanish expedition was formed. Its goal was to explore and conquer the interior of Mexico. A Franciscan priest and survivor of enslavement by the Mayan people, Hernán Cortéz, commanded the expedition.

On April 21, 1519, Cortéz and his fleet of eleven Spanish ships landed on the east coast of Mexico. The priest and his army of 550 soldiers soon conquered the Totomac people. He earned their trust and soon sought an audience with the Aztec ruler Moctezuma. Soon Cortéz’s army marched towards the Aztec kingdom. As they marched, their numbers grew with Totomac, Tlaxcalan, and Cholulan warriors.

The Aztec ruler met the army upon their arrival. Moctezuma gave them a tour of the kingdom and threw lavish banquets. In the feasts, he soon offered Cortéz chocolatl, a drink made out of ground corn, cacao beans, honey, and of course, vanilla pods.

The Franciscan priest soon brought home the recipe for the drink, along with the precious orchid, and introduced it to the European people. Chocolatl soon became a drink for the rich and famous. (Source: Delishably)

Vanilla was only thought of as an additive for chocolate not until the early 17th century when the royal pharmacist Hugh Morgan developed chocolate-free, all-vanilla sweet treats. Vanilla soon became a critical ingredient over the next century. (Source: National Geographic)

Vanilla ice cream became all the rage in France and soon enough, reached across the seas, thanks to Thomas Jefferson, who loved it so much. (Source: Fantastic Facts)

Growing Vanilla in Europe

Upon Cortéz’s return to Europe, growers planted and cultivated the vanilla plant in England and France. They could grow the flowers, but they could not achieve having the flowers produce the pods that hold the seeds. The seeds were used for the vanilla flavor. It was only after almost three hundred years before they understood why.

Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist, discovered in 1836 that only a specific type of bee can pollinate the vanilla flower. It was the Melipona bee, which didn’t even exist in the region. The species was only found where the vanilla first originated, in Mexico. (Source. Smithsonian Magazine)

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