The farmers move quickly through snaking vines, seeking out the pale, waxy flowers that bloom just one morning each year. They use thin, pointed sticks to lift the delicate membrane that separates the male and female parts of the flower. With thumb and forefinger, they push the segments into each other to ensure pollination.
If the union is successful, “the thick green base of the flower swells almost immediately,” as food writer Sarah Lohman writes in her book Eight Flavors. “The swollen base matures into a green fingerlike seedpod—a fruit—that ripens yellow and eventually splits at the end.”
To wait too long or to damage the plant during pollination is to lose a precious flower that could have matured into a pod. That’s a costly mistake for what has become one of the most beloved, lucrative spices in existence: vanilla. Consumers’ insatiable appetite for this fragrant spice means that an estimated 18,000 products on the market contain vanilla flavor today, with prices for natural vanilla hovering around $300 per pound.
The work of hand pollination is painstaking, but not new. Long before Europeans took to vanilla’s taste, the creeping vine grew wild in tropical forests throughout Mesoamerica. While the Totonac people of modern-day Veracruz, Mexico, are credited as the earliest growers of vanilla, the oldest reports of vanilla usage come from the pre-Columbian Maya. The Maya used vanilla in a beverage made with cacao and other spices. After conquering the Totonacan empire, the Aztecs followed suit, adding vanilla to a beverage consumed by nobility and known as chocolatl.
The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519 brought the fragrant flower—and its companion, cacao—to Europe. Vanilla was cultivated in botanical gardens in France and England, but never offered up its glorious seeds. Growers couldn’t understand why until centuries later when, in 1836, Belgian horticulturist Charles Morren reported that vanilla’s natural pollinator was the Melipona bee, an insect that didn’t live in Europe. (A recent study, however, suggests that Euglossine bees may actually be the orchid’s primary pollinator.)
Five years later, on the island of Réunion, a 39-mile long volcanic hotspot in the Indian Ocean, everything changed. In 1841, an enslaved boy on the island named Edmond Albius developed the painstaking yet effective hand-pollination method for vanilla that is still in use today, which involves exposing and mating the flower’s male and female parts. His technique spread from Réunion to Madagascar and other neighboring islands, and eventually worked its way back to Mexico as a way to augment the vanilla harvest pollinated by bees.
This proliferation helped whet the world’s appetite for vanilla. The spice quickly found its way into cakes and ice cream, perfumes and medicines, and was valued for its intoxicating flavor and aroma. But despite growing demand and a robust crop, the tremendous amount of time and energy that went into cultivation and processing affected farmers’ ability to supply the market—and continues to do so today. Nearly all of the vanilla produced commercially today is hand-pollinated.
“Vanilla requires a fair amount of skill to grow,” explains Tim McCollum, co-founder of Madécasse, a direct-trade chocolate and vanilla company. “You can’t just put seed in the ground, tend to it and expect it to produce a yield. Hand pollination is a learned skill. Many farmers have been growing vanilla for three to four generations. Smallholder farmers … have an absolute sixth sense as to when the orchids will bloom.”
Moreover, the vanilla aromas and flavors we know and love don’t reveal themselves until the crop is cured and dried. So it’s equally important to know to manage the plants once they bear fruit. After harvesting, McCollum explains, vanilla beans are sorted and graded. They’re then blanched in hot water to halt fermentation and placed in large containers to sweat for 36 to 48 hours. “It’s when the beans start to change from green to brown, and start to develop aroma,” he says.
From there, the beans undergo alternating periods of sun drying during the day and sweating at night, a journey that lasts between five and 15 days and ends with a period of slow drying. “This usually occurs indoors, in a well-ventilated room where beans are placed on racks,” McCollum says. “It can take up to 30 days, depending on the grade.” The entire process—from growing and pollinating to drying, curing and preparing for export—takes around one year.