Vanilla is an extract obtained from the seed pods of a plant from the orchid family (Vanilla planifolia), a Mexican species. It is actually the only edible fruit from an orchid. The name comes from "vainilla" that in Spanish means small pod.
In Pre-Columbian times the plant was cultivated and enjoyed too by the Totonacs from Veracruz on the Caribbean side of Mexico. It was considered sacred and was used in ritual offerings, as medicine and as a perfume, not so much for food.
In the early XV Century Aztecs started to combine vanilla (called Tlilxochitl) with chocolate which was what Hernán Cortés got offered by Emperor Moctezuma during a religious ceremony. Cortés was so impressed that he took a supply of the pods to Spain and offered it to his king too, where it later on became an exclusive beverage of aristocrats and royalty.
Vanilla Pre-Columbian Legend
Over the course of the next 300 years, Mexican Vanilla was transplanted to various locations around the world, but failed to become a viable crop, based solely on a complete lack of biological knowledge (Ecology, for that sake), as these shortsighted entrepreneurs failed to take into account the local bee that fertilized the flower. In 1841, to compensate for this lack of the natural pollenizer, a manual method was invented and other countries started using it and producing vanilla too.
Vanilla flower (Orchid)
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron due to its labor intensive cultivation process.
Even though vanilla originated in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean and for at some point in time Mexico held the monopoly and produced the finest extract in the world, this no longer is a guarantee that what you buy now will immediately be the best or even natural, as most of the cheap vanilla in these countries is now synthetic.
You need to be careful when buying vanilla, that you are purchasing the real thing, an extract from the vanilla pods and not "vanilla" flavoring with an extract from tonka beans. These extracts contain coumarin that can have potential serious side effects.
You must review the ingredient list, if it includes "tonka bean" or the ingredient list seems vague or doesn't exist, the FDA recommends that you don't purchase it, we do too :-)
Vanilla information and how the flower is pollinated
FDA's established standard for pure vanilla extract is 65% water, 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla pods in one gallon, glycerin can also be added as well as sugar. What makes the difference between different products is the quality of the vanilla pods, where they are from, how they were grown and the ageing process they go through before the extracting process.
The top 10 vanilla producers today are:
Some tips so you can figure out if you are buying pure vanilla.
It should be amber colored, dark and murky is synthetic, so if it's amber colored and clear, it's a good sign that it may be pure.
If the price is low, that's a telltale sign that it's not pure. If it's a big bottle and priced at less than 20 dollars there is no way it can be a vanilla extract.
Clear colored products are pure synthetic vanillin.
Blue Cattle Truck Trading Co. Pure Mexican Vanilla