Sadly, for many, vanilla connotes a bland flavouring (worse yet, an imitation flavouring) for dull confections and sickly coffee, or a feeble epithet for all things simple, plain, and ordinary.

Think again, my friends!

Real vanilla is produced from a bean which is the fruit of a beautiful orchid, vanilla planifolia, and is the only edible part of any one of the tens of thousands of orchid varieties. Of the many varieties of vanilla orchid, only three produce this luscious bean. The plant itself is native to tropical America, and was used by the Aztecs to flavour their chocolate drink, a winning combination to be sure. Like chocolate, Europeans were introduced to vanilla when the Spanish conquered Latin America about 500 years ago; after they tasted it, the Spanish established vanilla plantations in tropical areas around the globe.

The production of vanilla beans is a time- and labour-intensive process. First of all, the orchid only blooms for a few hours once a year, and the only natural pollinator - a bee - cannot possibly pollinate all the orchids in this short time, so today most flowers are hand-pollinated. After nine months maturation, the pods are hand-picked. At this stage the pods are green and do not smell or taste like vanilla; they have to be cured. First, they are immersed in boiling water for 20 seconds, then wrapped in blankets and left in the sun to dry each day and sweat each night, causing them to ferment, shrink, and turn their familiar wrinkly dark brown. No wonder the real thing is expensive.

The most common types of vanilla beans today are:

  • Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla beans come from the island of Madagascar, as the name suggests, as well as the West Indian island of RĂ©union. Bourbon-Madagascar beans account for three-quarters of the world's supply; they are rich, sweet, and thin.
  • Mexican vanilla beans, a high quality product with superior aroma and flavour, are sadly quite scarce as most of their natural habitat is given over to oil fields and orange groves. Additionally, some Mexican vanilla contains coumarin, a potentially toxic substance that can cause liver and kidney damage, so buy from a reputable source.
  • Tahitian vanilla beans are the largest and darkest of the three beans; they are more aromatic, but less flavourful, than the other two.

Vanilla beans should be stored in airtight containers in a cool, dark place for up to six months. Some people say to refrigerate them, others say don't; I don't. The bean itself should be slightly pliable; if it dries out, put a piece of potato in the storage container and change it daily until the bean regains its soft pliable state. Whole beans that have been used to flavour sauces or other mixtures may be rinsed, dried and stored for reuse.

Each vanilla pod contains thousands of flavour-bearing seeds which you can add directly to foods to give them a wonderful vanilla taste. To remove the seeds, run a knife carefully down the length of the bean, bisecting it, then scrape out the seeds. Excellent in ice cream. Put the empty skins in a container of white sugar or coffee beans and the remaining flavour and aroma will infuse the whole jar. You can also soak whole vanilla beans in vodka for six months to make your own vanilla essence. Although it's not always feasible, it's best not to add vanilla extract or essence to hot foods as heat will dissipate the flavour.

Two words about artificial vanilla: wood-pulp by-products. Yuck. There is no comparison between real and artificial here: always look for pure vanilla extract or essence. The essence is usually stronger than the extract, and a drop or two will suffice for most uses.