The little vanilla pod does everything it can to pretend it isn’t holding a wondrous secret. Its ordinary exterior does nothing to suggest it’s actually derived from a glamorous orchid. And, who would know just by looking at it that, after saffron, it’s the world’s most expensive spice.
Vanilla has been sweetening our baking and perfumes for hundreds of years. The Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar and Indonesia are now the largest growers, but it originally hailed from Central America, The Aztecs, who named vanilla the ‘black flower’, were among the first to fall for its charms. The Mexicans deemed it a gift from the gods, using the flowers to scent their temples and wearing them as amulets to protect against evil. Portuguese explorers roaming the high seas introduced vanilla to Africa and Asia a century later.
As its multitude of uses emerged, vanilla became the flavour the world couldn’t get enough of. Everyone tried to produce it, but the plant proved to be something of a diva and would only thrive when hand-pollinated (one would expect nothing less from the offspring of an orchid). This was after Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren, sipping coffee on a terrace in Mexico in 1836, spotted black bees buzzing around the vanilla orchids. The flowers would then slowly close and, a few days later, the pods would start to form. Replicating this natural pollination is a laborious process, as is harvesting the pods. And this is what makes vanilla so expensive. Each plant ripens in its own sweet time, which means harvesting has to happen on a daily basis. But as they say with good reason – patience is a virtue.
A magical blend of vanilla’s rich sweetness tempered by earthy vetiver
Jo Malone London has married this tropical queen’s rich sweetness with earthy vetiver to create the magical Vetiver & Golden Vanilla. The vanilla we use comes from the ‘Vanilla Coast’ on the northeast shores of Madagascar – harvested by hand, of course.