vanilla 615.jpg
A classic favorite at The Capital Grille. Perfectly caramelized crust over the creamiest of custards.

This Content is made possible by our Sponsor; it is not written by and
does not necessarily reflect the views of
The Atlantic's editorial staff. 


Standing out in a big family is pretty hard to do.

Especially when that family is Orchidaceae (Orchid), the largest family of flowering plants on Earth. But there's one extraordinary orchid that deserves special note: Vanilla planifolia, or Mexican flat-leaved vanilla orchid, the source of the ubiquitous (and second-most expensive) spice.

A Eureka Moment
The cultivation of vanilla beans was something of a mystery for many years. The vanilla orchid was known to produce its valuable seed pod while in its native habitat (in present-day Mexico) but when transplanted elsewhere the plant refused to fruit. As a result, Central America enjoyed a monopoly on vanilla production for more than three centuries.

Then in 1836, a French botanist living in Mexico was having coffee on his patio when he noticed Melipona bees (a species unique to the region) flying into his vanilla plant. Observing the bees' actions closely, the botanist experienced a Eureka moment and began to experiment with hand-pollination methods that duplicated how the bees moved within the vanilla orchid's open flower.

But it was a 12-year-old slave on a small French island near Madagascar who invented the first successful method for hand-pollinating the vanilla orchid, breaking Mexico's monopoly. That island, once called the Île Bourbon after the French royal house, is now one of the largest vanilla producers in the world. And to this day, vanilla orchids continue to be pollinated by hand.

A Complex Process
Producing a single vanilla bean remains a complex and time-consuming process. The vanilla orchid's fruit is really just a seed capsule, or what we think of as a vanilla bean. A single flower produces a single vanilla bean, but each flower is only available for reproduction one day per year. A vanilla bean can take up to nine months to fully mature, and it's then cured through a months-long process of sweating, drying, and conditioning until it becomes that dark-brown flavor bomb we all know well.

Warm and honeyed, vanilla is a key ingredient in a wide range of sweets, as well as classic desserts like crème brûleé. When buying, look for beans with deep brown-black color and that are not brittle; good beans will bend and twist under pressure.