VANILLA is the genus name of a group of tropical vines that are in the orchid family and native to the Americas. It is the only orchid plant that bears edible fruit among its 35,000 species.
VANILLA is the second most expensive spice after saffron, due the extensive labor required to grow the seed pods used in its manufacture. When the plant matures at three years, it flowers for just one day. In that time, it must be hand-pollinated. The plant will not bloom for another year. When the bean is removed nine months later, it must then undergo several months of drying and fermenting. Regardless of its high cost, vanilla is widely used in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacture and aroma therapy.
The word VANILLA comes from the Spanish ‘vainilla’ and refers to the shape of the plant’s seedpods. The seedpods have been used for flavouring food for hundreds of years. It is believed that the Totonaca people of Mexico were the first cultivators of VANILLA, during the Mesoamerican period. According to Totonac mythology, the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew. They believed this exotic fruit had been bestowed upon them by the Gods and continue to cultivate VANILLA today.
When the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs, and the conquerors soon developed a taste for the VANILLA bean. They named the bean "tlilxochitl", or "black flower", after the mature bean, which shrivels and turns black shortly after it is picked. After they were subjected to the Aztecs, the Totonacs paid their tribute by sending VANILLA beans to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.
In the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors under Cortez, watched Montezuma, Emperor of the Aztecs, pulverize VANILLA beans, combine them with chocolate and serve it as a drink in golden goblets to his most honoured guests. The Spanish caught on quickly and by the middle of the 15th century, were importing it to Europe to use as a flavour in the manufacture of chocolate.
There are currently three major cultivars of VANILLA grown globally, all derived from a species originally found in Mesoamerica, including parts of modern day Mexico. The various subspecies are:
Vanilla planifolia (syn. V. fragrans), grown on Madagascar, Réunion and other tropical areas along the Indian Ocean;
V. tahitensis, grown in the South Pacific; and V. pompona, found in the West Indies, Central and South America; and
V. planifolia variety, the majority of the variety produced and more commonly known as "Madagascar-Bourbon" vanilla, which is produced in a small region of the East African nation of Madagascar and in Indonesia.
Today, VANILLA beans grow within 20 degrees north and south of the Equator in the tropical regions of the world.
Madagascar and Indonesia grow the majority of the world’s VANILLA beans. Other countries around the Pacific Rim which grow and supply VANILLA to the world include Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Philippines, Fiji, Tonga, India, Guatemala and Costa Rica.
VANILLA is available in a variety of forms:
Vanilla beans (pods): Depending on origination, pods will range in length from 6 to 12 inches. Some are slender; others are thick. They will generally be dark in colour. Taste among species is different, although Madagascar and Mexico beans are very similar.
Pure vanilla extract (or essence): This naturally extracted product is also aged for maximum flavour. Bean quality may vary. Extract also may contain alcohol per food standards regulations in countries of sale.
Vanilla paste: Contains no alcohol, easy to dissolve, and has the same strong flavour as extract.
Vanilla powder: Quick-dissolving with no sugars or alcohols.
Vanilla flavoring: A combination of natural and synthetic ingredients.
Imitation vanilla: Contains additives and synthetic, rather than true vanilla. This is not altogether inferior and many cooks prefer it. Usually used in place of vanilla essences and extracts that contains alcohol due to religious reasons.
Source: Wikipedia, Vanilla Plantation, Wise Geek and Big Oven.