One of the most precious and valuable plant substances and an important factor in many perfumes, vanilla was a great discovery for Europeans when they encountered the Aztec aristocracy drinking vanilla flavored chocolate from gold cups. They imported vanilla into Europe where it became an essential ingredient in much of European cooking and later a frequently used element in perfume. The orchid it comes from is native to Mexico, and there required the pollination of special indigenous bees, now extinct, or certain hummingbirds. It was a former slave on the French island of Reunion who then saved the vanilla trade by figuring out how to pollinate the orchids by hand in the 1840s. The bean pods are green and have no fragrance, but must be dried for months under certain conditions in order for the strong aroma to develop. Once you have a good quality bean, picking out an oily flexible pod, you can make your own extract by slitting it length wise between the ends, and then soaking it in vodka for six weeks. The beans must be kept in an airtight container to preserve the scent. Or buried in sugar, in which it will impart its flavor and fragrance over time. The sugar can then can be used to flavor coffee or for other culinary uses. At retail an individual bean pod can be up to eight dollars but if you buy online in bulk the price can come down to about $1.50 per bean. The quality and fragrance of the extract you can easily make, it is said, is far more aromatic than what you can obtain pre-made for sale. The vanilla from Mexico and Madagascar is considered to be the best quality but it is also grown in Tahiti and Indonesia, and each place produces a different tone to the fragrance and the flavor. The Comptoir Sud line, and La Maison de la Vanille, with their vanilla fragrances toned with tonka bean, rose, coco, apricot, peach, patchouli, sandalwood, and many other components, or Vanille Absolu by Montale, come first to mind as niche fragrances with a lots of fans for an intense sensation of vanilla. Hundreds of other fragrances use vanilla as a background component to provide a meditative yet sensual quality that centers a perfume. It is said to be a particular favorite of men in blind testing. The smell is so bound in with the flavor that one heightens and triggers the sensation of the other. It has a relaxing, calming quality. Ironically, most commercial products scented or flavored with vanilla use vanillin, a form of mock vanilla, very different than the real thing. Real vanilla has hundreds of subtle components that make for a deep and rich tone. It is not a often a foreground scent or flavor, but one that adds great dimension to fragrance blends.
Above, a Mexican vanilla orchid.