But their mastery over this ambrosia didn’t last long. The Aztecs swooped in and conquered the Totonacs, forcing them to give up their sacred vanilla. The Aztecs began demanding tax from the Totonacs in the form of vanilla beans, and leaned heavily into its deliciously edible properties. They discovered (and modern science would back them up on this) that it had aphrodisiac potencies, and they combined vanilla with cacao in a ceremonial concoction called “xocolatl” (or chocolatl, also known as the original hot chocolate). Since the vanilla orchid turns black after maturing and being harvested, the Aztecs called it the “black flower.”
The Aztecs rode high, reigning over their precious flower—and all of Mesoamerica—until Spanish explorers landed on their shores. Despite the Spaniards’ obviously hostile intentions, the Aztec emperor Montezuma is said to have offered Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés a traditional goblet of vanilla-infused hot chocolatl. Cortés drank it gladly, managed to acquire the recipe, and proceeded to end Montezuma’s life and dominion.