The most surprising thing about vanilla is that it is derived from the seed pods (beans) of an orchid, Vanilla planifolia. Native to the coastal rainforests of Southeast Mexico and Guatemala, it grows in the rainforest as a vine. It produces waxy white to green flowers. After pollination by humming birds, the 6-9-inch beans take nine months to develop.
Harvested green, the beans are first wrapped and subjected to high temperature and humidity. The next process involves a process of fermentation at night while sun drying at day. At this point the beans are dark, oily and pliable. They are then slowly dried in the shade for up to two months, then sorted and graded and placed in chests for a further conditioning period of one or two months.
The Totonaco people of the Vera Cruz region in Mexico were the first to exploit vanilla. In 1427, the Aztec emperor Itzcoatl conquered the Totonacos, after which a yearly payment of the best beans were made to emperor Montezuma as tribute and taxes.
The Aztecs called these brown beans "tlilxochitl" (tea-so-shill), the Aztec word for "black flower." They believed them to have magical powers and incorporated them into their ritual chocolate-based drink.
In 1518, while the Spanish conquistador Cortez was seeking the treasures of the New World, he observed the Aztec emperor Montezuma enjoying a royal beverage of vanilla-scented chocolate. In 1528, Hernando Cortez presented vanilla beans to the King of Spain, Charles V. From then on it gained enormous popularity in Europe and the Western world.