We all have been relishing vanilla ice creams from the time we were children and also must be using vanilla flavours in cakes, pastries, desserts all too often.

But do we know much about this plant extract? Possibly no.

Do we know, even though a native of Mexico, how this plant spread to different parts of the world ? May be no. So here’s a short summarized write up on vanilla.

Native to Mexico, the orchid was brought to Europe by the Spaniards but for several centuries no body in Europe could make the beans grow anywhere else. In 1836 a Belgian horticulturist figured out the puzzle: the beans emerge from the flower after its pollinated by one or two native species of bees from Mesoamerica. In 1841, a young slave named Edmond Albius from the island of Réunion (then called Bourbon) found out that it was possible to hand pollinate the plant by carefully manipulating the male and female parts. This stroke of genius helped transform vanilla into a cultivatable crop, and very soon small plantations started popping up all over the world. Vanilla also came to Madagascar, 500 miles due west of Réunion in the Indian Ocean where the orchids grow really well.

Bulk (some 80%) of Vanilla cultivation happens in the North Eastern part of the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. And the reason: cheap labour. Daily labour available for as low as $1 in N E Madagascar.

So how does the cultivation of vanilla look like. The plant grows as orchids and takes three years to yield beans. One healthy vanilla plant can produce about 2 kg green beans per plant. Curing proportion is about 5:1 or 6:1 kg green bean to cured green bean by weight, so each plant can produced 0.3 to 0.4 kg cured vanilla beans per plant. While vanilla prices do swing in the world market from as low as $20 to $650/ kg, the cultivation of vanilla can be quite profitable: a square metre of vanilla cultivation can yield $6k while a hectare upto $60 million.

The high price of Vanilla is often believed to have started post a call taken by Nestle and other multinational companies to use only natural vanilla in all its food products and not artificial ones (It’s a different discussion that many law suits have been filed in the US since it was found that the reality in food industry was completely different).

In India, Vanilla is cultivated in the Southern states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, producing approximately 30-40 tonnes from some 300 hectares as compared to 2500 tonnes of world production.

It is believed that Vanilla cultivated in different places in the world have different flavours for eg., the one from Indonesia has earthy and smoky flavour; that from Uganda has chocolaty; from Tahiti is fruity and flowery; from Mexico of clover and nutmeg. But the one from Madagascar or Malagasy tastes like what people expect from really good vanilla: rich, creamy, sweet. Such subtleties in flavour may help explain, why Madagascar dominates the world trade in Vanilla.

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