Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) is a flavoring agent, extracted from the fruit of several species of orchids, all belonging to the genus Vanilla. Although many people claim that it is a bean, it is in fact botanically a berry. It is a plant of tropical and subtropical regions and the origin of the plant can befound somewhere in southeastern Mexico and Guatemala.
Just as was the case with the chilli, the first Spanish conquerors, led by the conquistador Hernán Cortés were the very first to bring the seeds to Spain and later to their other colonies. The production of vanilla spread around the globe. Today, the main exporting countries are Madagascar and Reunion (once called Bourbon). Furthermore, limited amounts are currently grown in eastern Africa, but these days Indonesia is an important export country too.
The first part of the scientific name, Vanilla, is derived from the Spanish name for the spice, vainilla. That is a diminutive of vaina, which can mean both "vagina", "sheath" or "pods". Thus, the name explains the shape. The second part, planifolia, is a combination word from the Latin, where planum is 'flat 'and folate is' leaf' 'It describes the shape of the leaf.
The fresh product contains vanillin glucoside, which is an odorless substance. Only after the harvest and a complicated process of fermentation, the aromatic vanillin is produced. After saffron, it is easily the most expensive flavouring. It is the reason that synthetic vanilla is used in dishes and soft drinks like Coca Cola. The synthetic version is produced from lignin, a complex polymer of wood.
Vanilla is mainly used in baked goods like cakes, pies and desserts. The pods are split open lengthwise is should be immersed in water, milk or cream and be boiled for 20 to 30 minutes.
When it first appeared in Europe, it was immediately thought that it had to have medicinal effects. So they produced drugs with vanilla that had to work as a stimulant for the nerves plus it was considered an aphrodisiac. Modern scientific research seems to show that intake can promote health because it can help to keep in check harmful bacteria, making infection less likely to occur. But who considers facts like that when you are consuming delicious dishes that are flavoured with it.
What everyone seems to have forgotten a bit is that vanilla is a beautiful plant with delicate yellow-green flowers that bloom just one day. The flower is fertilized by a bee that does not exist outside of Central America. That means that in any other region every single plant has to be fertilized by hand before the precious vanilla pod can emerge.