Vanilla is a flavoring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla native to Mexico. Etymologically, vanilla derives from the Spanish word "vainilla", little pod. Originally cultivated by Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican peoples, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is credited with introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s. Attempts to cultivate the vanilla plant outside Mexico and Central America proved futile because of the symbiotic relationship between the tlilxochitl vine that produced the vanilla orchid and the local species of Melipona bee; it was not until 1837 that Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren discovered this fact and pioneered a method of artificially pollinating the plant. The method proved financially unworkable and was not deployed commercially. In 1841, a 12-year-old French-owned slave by the name of Edmond Albius, who lived on Île Bourbon, discovered the plant could be hand pollinated, allowing global cultivation of the plant.
Vanilla is used in two main forms: the seeds of the vanilla pod and the extract made from the seeds.
Vanilla pods or beans
Vanilla pods are sometimes used whole to flavour things like sugar or alcohol. Other times they are split and their tiny seeds are extracted to be used as a flavouring.
Vanilla extract, or essence, is used mainly in baking to impart a distinctive flavour to baked goods. It is also used to flavour ice cream and even as a perfume. It can be purchased in pure form or artificial, the latter being less expensive, but considered inferior by some.