Mexico is where the story of vanilla beans begins. These beans are rich and dark, with spicy and smokey tones, perfect for baked goods, sauces and other desserts. It's also fantastic when a teaspoon is added to seared or glazed salmon or chicken.
Almost every vanilla bean in the world is, sort of, a Mexican vanilla bean. Here's why...
The Totonacs of Veracruz Mexico are the first people in the world known to have cultivated vanilla beans. By the 1400's, the Aztecs had begun using vanilla beans to enhance the taste of chocolate.
When Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez discovered the spice, he brought a large supply back with him to Spain and introduced it to the King and Royal Court. It's popularity grew and vanilla bean plantations quickly began to spread across Europe, into Africa and into Asia.
Virtually every vanilla bean grown in the world today is directly related to the Mexican species of vanilla bean, Vanilla Planifolia. In fact, the largest exporter of vanilla beans today is Madagascar. And what vanilla bean to they harvest? You guessed it, the Vanilla Planifolia.
Though much of the DNA may be similar, the climate, the soil and the methods used for harvesting, curing and extracting all contribute to the taste of the vanilla.
Today, very little of the world's global vanilla cultivation comes from Mexico. The Mexican Revolution, global warming, competition from Madagascar, drug cartels desiring land for drug production, etc. all contributed to a decline in Mexican vanilla bean production. But that trend is changing and in 2016 Mexico had its largest vanilla harvest in decades.
Most Mexican vanilla beans are harvested along the Gulf Coast in the Veracruz state, where the climate is amicable and the soil is rich with nutrition. These factors make a real, Mexican vanilla bean one of the most delightful and elegant vanilla beans on the planet.
A Note to Tourists in Mexico or Abroad:
Vanilla sold in tourist markets around Mexico is sometimes not actual vanilla extract, but is mixed with an extract of the tonka bean, which contains coumarin. Tonka bean extract smells and tastes like vanilla, but coumarin has been shown to cause liver damage in lab animals and is banned in the US by the Food and Drug Administration. Remember that government regulations on food labels are not as stringent outside of the US.