Pure vanilla has a wonderful aromatic flavor, and is the most widely used flavoring in desserts.  Second only to saffron, vanilla is the most expensive spice in the world.  It’s the fruit pod or bean of a climbing orchid, which is picked immature, then cured in a long process.  The vanilla bean, interior seeds, and an extract made by dissolving the essential oil of the bean in an alcohol base, are all commonly used in recipes. There are close to 150 varieties of the vanilla orchid, but only two of them, Bourbon and Tahitian, are used commercially. The first vanilla was found in Mexico, (which is now a small producer), and most is grown in Madagascar and Reunion, with smaller contributions from India, Indonesia and China.  When purchasing vanilla extract, be sure it’s labeled “pure” or “natural” — otherwise you’re likely getting an imitation.

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