Vanilla is a flavoring derived from orchids in the genus Vanilla native to Mexico. The name "vanilla" comes from the Spanish word "vainilla", meaning "little pod".
The history of vanilla starts along the Mexican Gulf Coast with the ancient Totonaco Indians who were the first keepers of the secrets of vanilla.
During the 17th century it was suggested to Queen Elizabeth that vanilla could be used as a flavoring all by itself!
Mexico was the chief producer of vanilla until the late 19th century. French entrepreneurs quickly shipped vanilla beans to the Réunion and Mauritius islands for their production and importation. The French developed large vanilla plantations on Reunion, known then as the Ile de Bourbon, which is how the name “Bourbon vanilla” was created. From Réunion Island to the Comoros Islands and Madagascar produced 200 metric tons of vanilla beans, about 80 percent of worlds production.
Today, vanilla plants are grown in five main areas of the world. Each region produces vanilla beans with distinctive characteristics. Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa, is the largest producer of vanilla beans in the world which is known as Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. The term Bourbon applies to beans grown on the Bourbon Islands - Madagascar, Comoro, Seychelle and Reunion. Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans are considered to be the highest quality pure vanilla available, described as having a creamy, sweet, smooth, mellow flavor. Indonesia is the second largest producer of vanilla beans, with a vanilla that is woody, astringent and phenolic. Madagascar and Indonesia produce 90 percent of the world's vanilla bean crop. Mexico, where the vanilla orchid originated, now produces only a small percentage of the harvest. Mexican vanilla beans are described as creamy, sweet, smooth and spicy.