Vanilla is one powerful commodity. The small black pods have helped build civilizations, create one of the largest brands known to humankind and nearly bankrupt a country – a lot for the little pod of the Vanilla orchid! When the Spanish Conquistadors first stumbled up it in the “New World” vanilla was already responsible for a huge portion of the Aztec economy. The Aztecs grew the pod, known as tlilxóchitl or “black flower,” in large forest plantations. Thanks to advanced trading networks that stretched throughout the Latin American continent, the Aztecs profited greatly from their crop, which helped to pay for their many breath-taking monuments. The Spaniards, catching a whiff of the sweet scent and the profits to be made, carted the tlilxóchitl back with them to Spain changing its name to vainilla, or little pod, as they did. (Fyi: it was the Spanish who first blended vanilla into a beverage, mixing it with drinking chocolate.) While South America remained the largest vanilla producer until at least the 19th century, Europeans began to plant vanilla farms throughout southern Europe and ultimately Madagascar, a small island nation off the South East coast of Africa. Ok, we’ll return to Madagascar in a moment.So, the Spanish added it to drinking chocolate, but it would be an American who would use vanilla to create a beverage that would take the world by storm. The beverage? You may have heard of it…Coca Cola? The original 1885 recipe relied on Vanilla for an exotic touch and we all know what happened from there, Coca Cola became a global phenomenon the likes of which the world had never seen. For the world’s vanilla producers these were exciting times! And here’s where we return to Madagascar and the third part of our Vanilla history lesson, in which a nation is nearly bankrupted by the black pods. In 1985, New Coke was introduced to the marketplace. Instead of pure vanilla extract, the new beverage contained vanillin, a synthetic substitute. Immediately Madagascar’s sales of fresh vanilla halved and the economy all but collapsed. Thankfully for the people of Madagascar, New Coke was a failure and the company was forced to reintroduce the Classic formula that used real, honest to goodness vanilla in its formula. The people of Madagascar breathed a sigh of relief – and began diversifying their income stream.