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The worlds most valuable bean: the history of vanilla beans

Slofoodgroup Team November 26, 2016

The history, mystery, and birth of the renowned vanilla bean

As I sit here staring at a beautifully cured, buttery, and fragrant vanilla bean, inhaling its sweet and alluring aroma, I cannot help but contemplate, wherever could vanilla beans come from, how did they get here, and how did they come to be so loved.

In this blog post, I will attempt to address the mystery and birth of the world famous vanilla bean and I hope to tell its story with the merit this stunning bean deserves!

The story of Vanilla unfolds in Mexico, the birthplace of vanilla. It was here, in South America, where the Vanilla orchid and a tiny bee were discovered as part of a symbiotic relationship. The Melipona bee is native to this area of South America and is the only known natural pollinator to the vanilla orchid plant.

It was not until 1841 on the French Island of Reunion in the Indian ocean, that a 12-year-old slave by the name of Edmond Albius, discovered how to hand pollinate the vanilla orchid and thus, the history of vanilla beans in the marketplace began. A new chapter in the global spice trade opened up and allowed for a valuable commodity to begin its worldwide obsession and the rise of Madagascar Vanilla beans.

The green vanilla beans in the picture above are vanilla planifolia. This is the most widely produced vanilla in the world—Madagascar being the top producer—but other countries have begun producing equal or better quality vanilla beans.

The vanilla beans we decided to share are our Ugandan Bourbon Vanilla beans.  We had the pleasure of watching these vanilla beans develop all the way to maturity and then along the process of being harvested, cured, and nurtured into grade A gourmet vanilla.  We are so thankful for the farmers, the curers, and the communities involved in the vanilla production as well as the opportunities it provides in some of the most remote places in the world for these communities.  It's just a small role but something we are grateful to be a part of.

At Slofoodgroup, we enjoy many types of vanilla beans but what we enjoy the most is the unique history behind each vanilla bean and the lives they touch that are unbeknownst and unheard of by the rest of the world. The story of vanilla beans is much deeper and complex, not so plain or "vanilla", as the term now commonly refers to something that is boring.  Vanilla beans have rightfully earned their position as the worlds second-most valuable spice (only rivaled by saffron).

One blog post is simply not enough to capture the true essence of Vanilla, vanilla farming, vanilla beans, and the families involved in this complex trade. Good thing we will be back with additional entries about all of our great products and to further explore the world of vanilla and spices.