Vanilla extract is the extract from the vanilla bean, prepared by chopping the beans into small pieces and then percolating them with alcohol and water.
Vanilla beans, the fruit of a unique species of orchid with aerial roots, fruit pods, and fragrant flowers, is native to the tropical rainforests of Mexico and Central America. Indigenous natives discovered that the tasteless and odorless vanilla bean, when dried by months of tropical heat and humidity, produced a rich taste and aroma.
When Aztecs conquered the Indian nations of southeastern Mexico in the 1500s, they named the vanilla bean "tlilxochitl." In 1520, Aztec emperor, Montezuma, served Spanish explorer Hernán Cortez a thick, syrupy mixture of cocoa beans, ground corn, honey, and black vanilla pods in a golden goblet. Cortez conquered the Aztecs, killed Montezuma, and brought vanilla to Europe, where it achieved great popularity.
Today vanilla beans are grown primarily in Madagascar, Indonesia, Tahiti, and Mexico.
The word vanilla stems from the latin word vagina, perhaps because vanilla fruit pods vaguely resemble a sheath or possibly because vanilla was considered an aphrodisiac.
Vanilla is the world's most popular flavor.
The vanilla bean requires approximately nine months to reach maturity, growing six to ten inches long like a overgrown string bean. Harvested beans are immersed in a hot water bath, then put into wooden boxes and covered with blankets to lock in the heat, where they will "sweat" for 24 to 72 hours, beginning the enzymatic change that produces vanillin. Finally, the beans are placed on blankets and dried in the sun for three to four months to complete the curing process. The cured beans—wrinkled and chocolate colored—are tied in bundles, packed in boxes, and shipped to McCormick, where they are weighed, chopped, and percolated in large stainless steel containers, much like coffee percolators. After the vanilla is aged for several weeks, it is bottled and shipped to stores.
The Totonac Indians of Mexico discovered how to hand pollinate the vanilla orchid, which is only in flower for one day.
Vanilla is the second most expensive flavoring in the world to produce, preceded only by saffron.
Queen Elizabeth I loved vanilla so much that she eventually refused all foods prepared without it.
Thomas Jefferson, having acquired a taste for vanilla in France, was the first person to import it to the United States.
Vanilla is the only orchid known to bear edible fruit.
Vanilla is the foremost flavor in ice cream, puddings, cakes, chocolates, baked goods, syrups, candies, liqueurs, tobacco, and soft drinks. Vanilla tincture is also used in perfumes.