It’s pretty likely that there is exactly one product from Madagascar in your home right now—no more, no less. That product is vanilla, and Madagascar is at the moment the world’s leading producer of this ubiquitous natural flavor—despite the fact that Madagascar is a very strange country to be the world’s leading producer of vanilla.
Vanilla, at least the vanilla we eat, is not native to Madagascar; it originated some 10,000 miles away. Madagascar is also a chaotic place to do business, as an article in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine showed in 2019. The modern vanilla industry in Madagascar involves crushing poverty, splurge-producing wealth, theft, murder, and money laundering—in addition to natural disasters and the leveling of pristine forests.
Vanilla is inexorably intertwined with food trends, colonialism, slavery, and capitalism at its most rank. Vanilla is the second-most-expensive spice in the world—saffron maintains that crown—and there’s nothing boring about it.
The vanilla family is made up of around 110 different species of orchid, found worldwide under the right conditions. Those conditions are basically hot and wet, so vanilla orchids thrive around the equator, from tropical Latin America to Southeast Asia to West Africa. They produce a range of fruits, generally sort of elongated, bean- or banana-like in shape, and usually green in color. Of all the orchid species, which number in the tens of thousands, vanilla is the only one that has a fruit that’s considered edible, or at least that’s regularly eaten.
“There are hundreds of vanilla varieties growing [in the wild] worldwide, but only in the Americas, according to every scientist I’ve talked to—and I’ve talked to a lot of them—it’s only in the Americas that vanilla has the flavor and fragrance,” says Patricia Rain, the author of Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance and one of the world’s foremost experts on the spice. (She sometimes goes by “The Vanilla Queen.”) The most important among all of these varieties is Vanilla planifolia, which is a vine, and needs some kind of support. One commonality amongst most orchids, and one shared by this species, is that V. planifolia is a ridiculous pain to grow in any volume.
For one thing, this vanilla plant flowers only briefly, for a few hours, and pollination must occur at that time. Pollination itself is so difficult that it makes you wonder whether the plant has any interest in reproduction at all. It’s still not entirely clear how it gets pollinated in the wild. Generally it’s believed that a single type of small, stingless Mexican bee is responsible, and possibly some hummingbirds, but nobody’s really been been able to figure out how to get vanilla pollinated naturally in any farm-like setting.
This has severely hampered the vanilla industry for most of its history. The various people who lived where wild vanilla grows, in modern-day southeastern Mexico, gathered it from the forests. Even assuming you can actually get a vanilla fruit, it’s a laborious process to make the spice from it, because the green vanilla fruit has little to no vanilla flavor. That flavor, largely though not entirely, comes from a chemical compound called vanillin, which only emerges after the beans have been boiled, maybe roasted, and then dried until they become oily and black.
Vanilla was used by the Totonacs and Aztecs for ceremonial and scent purposes, and in a couple of beverages, most notably chocolate drinks and atole, a drink made from ground corn. It ended up in Europe thanks to the Spanish, who brought it back from the New World along with chocolate and chili peppers and tomatoes and all kinds of other stuff.
Europeans found many more uses for vanilla, most notably combining it with another colonial product, sugar from the new sugarcane plantations in the West Indies, to make vanilla desserts that became popular among those who could afford them, which was really only the very rich and powerful. This is around the time when the first recipes for vanilla ice cream, crème brûlée, and other vanilla-tinged dishes were created.