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Vanilla (or as it is known scientifically Vanilla planifolia) has long been considered the "Queen of Seasonings" due to the strength of its unique flavor and its all around usefulness. For example, vanilla can make just about anything sweet just a little bit sweeter, make your fruit dishes just that much more fragrant, and can even sooth the aggressive tastes of chocolate and coffee. All around, vanilla is a truly benign ruler in its ability to lend strength and elegance to just about any kind of a dish.
Vanilla is actually the fruit of a type of orchid flower that originally only grew in Mexico. In fact, it was the Spanish explorers of Mexico that first gave this flower the name "vainilla," from which we know derive the name Vanilla. Depending on who you ask, the name originally meant small pod, or little scabbard. However, now it is simply the name of one of the most famous flavors on the planet.
While the vanilla orchid plant was originally a native of Mexico, it has since been transplanted all around the world. However, the plant is a very temperamental little thing, and can only grow well in a hot climate. As a result of this, the best vanilla beans come from the countries of Madagascar and Mexico. The vanilla orchid is an exquisitely beautiful plant that has shiny leaves, which also tends to be a bit heavy. When it flowers, the vanilla orchid will stay in bloom up until the flower gives way to the cluster of long green pods which takes its place. These green pods are what we call the vanilla bean.
Speaking in a culinary sense, vanilla has a wide variety of uses. While it can, and often is, used as a flavoring, one of its strongest uses comes in its ability to bring out the good in other ingredients. For example have you ever noticed how a cake recipe often calls for one teaspoon of vanilla? This is not to give the cake a vanilla taste, but rather to hide and down play the taste of the flour and eggs, while bringing out the taste of the other ingredients—like chocolate. Vanilla is also used around the world in a variety of other ways ranging from being used in perfume manufacturing and aromatherapy. Unfortunately, there is no manmade equivalent of this spice which can approach its versatility, though work is still continuing on developing one.