How in the world did vanilla come to be synonymous with ordinary? It just doesn’t fit. Vanilla is one of the most extraordinary of all flavors! Even the fact that it exists is a near miracle.
You see, vanilla can grow in a lot of places. However, it can only be naturally pollinated in its native Mexico. Why? Because only little Mexican bees know how to pollinate a vanilla flower.
So outside of Mexico, vanilla must be pollinated by hand. This involves carefully retrieving pollen from one tiny part of the flower and depositing it on another tiny part of the flower (or a different flower, if you want the vanilla pod’s seeds to be fertile). Hand-pollinating vanilla is a simple but delicate and painstaking endeavor.
What makes it harder is the fact that a vanilla flower only opens for a single day, in the morning, and that’s the only opportunity to pollinate it! If the flower isn’t pollinated on the day it opens, it withers without producing a vanilla pod. If a vanilla flower does get pollinated, it closes up soon after, and a vanilla pod appears within a few days.
Getting the pods to grow is just the beginning. At harvest, the vanilla pod doesn’t yet have any vanilla scent or flavor. To get that, the pod has to be cured and slowly dried over several months.
It leaves us wondering: who figured that out? The answer is the Totonacs, an indigenous people of Mexico, who discovered how to get vanilla flavor out of vanilla pods at least a thousand years ago. Why did they go to the trouble of curing and drying vanilla pods in the first place? That remains a mystery, but we sure are glad they did it. Otherwise, the world may have never known the wonderful flavor of vanilla. Thank you, Totonacs!