Participants tried some leche flan bought at in Don Quixote St. The street is widely known to have a lot of establishments that specializes pasalubong and desserts.  PHOTO/ Leo M. Sabangan II

On June 15, designated as the World Wind Day, another history tour on bicycles will pedal around 15 kilometers of slow storytelling around key parts of Manila. One of its stops: Rodel’s Pasalubong Place in Don Quixote St. for refreshments, snacks, and a bit of talk about food, climate, and history. The subject? Vanilla, a spice is far more interesting than you think.

For people who belong to the sexual kink community, vanilla is a word used often to describe ‘boring sex’ – an odd notion, for sure, given the word’s origins in another word imbued with power and sensuality – the vagina. (Think of the structure of vanilla pods and the way they open, and voila, enlightenment.)

Vanilla has been called the world’s most popular flavor and fragrance. It’s the third most expensive spice in the world and a complex botanical ingredient that provides unparalleled depth in terms of taste and scent in food and perfume and other cosmetic products. It’s been an important part of the spice trade for four centuries. It certainly gives joy to millions of Filipinos who love snacking on gulaman at sago, leche flan, taisan, and karioka.

Vanilla is extracted from the cured beans of Vanilla planifolia, a spice from an orchid that is not capable of self-pollination, which is what makes its history with humans most interesting.

Writing in The Smithsonian, Simran Sethi tells us “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.”

It took Europe by storm, but the plant continued to frustrate their botanists. Vanilla’s flavor and fragrance stood out but it was so captivating it even became a fix-all. The physician of Spain’s King Philip II called it “a miracle drug that could sooth the stomach, cure the bite of a venomous snake, reduce flatulence, and cause ‘the urine to flow admirably.’”

Vanilla was even considered a stimulant long ago: a German physician hilariously claimed in 1762 that “No fewer than 342 impotent men, by drinking vanilla decoctions, have changed into astonishing lovers of at least as many women.” Was it the reason why Madame de Pompadour, chief mistress of French King Louis XV, was known to flavor her soups with vanilla?

Demand kept growing for the spice, but production could not keep pace. “Growers couldn’t understand why until centuries later,” wrote Sethi. Even when a Belgian horticulturist found in 1836 the bee that acted as a natural pollinator, nothing seemed to work: the insect “didn’t live in Europe.” But five years later, recounted Sethi, “everything changed.”

As Robert Krulwich recounted in a beautiful story National Geographic published recently, “One plantation owner, Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, on the island of Réunion halfway between India and Africa, had received a bunch of vanilla plants from the government in Paris. He’d planted them, and one, only one, held on for 22 years. It never fruited.”

Even with the bee the plant would grow but it wouldn’t fruit and produce beans, and though flowers would appear, they would bloom only for a day before folding up and falling off. No beans, no vanilla extract.

It took a 12-year old slave by the name of Edmond Albius to show Beaumont how to make the orchid bear fruit. Born in 1829 without knowing his father and his mother dying at childbirth, Edmond “looked and probed and found the part of the flower that produced pollen,” wrote Krulwich. “He’d also found the stigma, the part that needed to be dusted. And, most important, he’d discovered that the two parts were separated by a little lid, and he’d lifted the flap and held it open with a little tool so he could rub the pollen in.”

It was Albius, said Sethi, who “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.” Five years later, “everything changed.” Vanilla production surged, turning plantation owners and companies in the entire supply chain rich.

For his discovery, the slave boy was given his only reward – the last name of Albius. He remained a slave until 1848, when France re-abolished slavery in its colonies. Eric Jennings, a historian at the University of Toronto, was clear in his assessment. “Edmond’s 1841 discovery changed everything. Vanilla planifolia, the main species of edible vanilla, could now be grown outside of the range of vanilla’s natural pollinator, the Central American Melipona bee.”

Despite the malign effort of a French botanist to claim the discovery, the boy’s former master Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont credited Albius entirely for his work, saying it was Albius who “first discovered how to manually fertilize the vanilla plant.” Bellier-Beaumont, the owner as well of the plantation where Albius cultivated his method, tried to get the boy a state pension for his service to the vanilla industry, but the French government ignored his appeals. He died poor in 1880.

Today, the global business of vanilla is valued at over a billion dollars. The US is the largest consumer and Madagascar is the biggest producer, but the reality is “most of what we eat is actually artificial vanilla flavoring,” Sethi writes. “[V]ery little of the vanilla we consume comes from those precious pods… In the late 19th century, scientists figured out how to derive vanillin—the dominant compound that gives vanilla its signature aroma—from less expensive sources.”

Yet the production of the compounds comes at a price – they create “a stream of wastewater that requires treatment before it can be released into surface water … catalysts currently used in the manufacturing of vanillin are polluting and can only be used one time.”

As for the real product, natural vanilla remains in demand, but also increasingly at risk from a threat it shares with the Philippines: climate change. Entire vanilla farms in Madagascar withered in 2021 because of severe drought, and this year a single cyclone wiped out key producing regions in the African nation.

Merienda has never been so historical, and political.

Next time you snack on leche flan, think of Edmond Albius – and might as well think of what you can do to help the Philippines face the climate crisis. We’re all in this together.

Edmund Albius portrait by Nadia Cruz

Sintang Lakbay is a historical walk and bike ride to promote inclusive mobility by facilitating active interaction with urban landscapes, restoring working-class memory in national history, and mobilizing public contributions to remembering through art and research. It is a collaborative project by The Polytechnic University of the Philippines, 350 Pilipinas, and the Constantino Foundation