The sun-dried seed pod of a type of climbing orchid, vanilla has an inimitable soft, sweet fragrance and flavour. The labour-intensive process involved in hand-pollinating and nurturing the flowers, together with the long drying time necessary makes it a highly prized - and highly priced - ingredient.
The rich, sweet Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla, from Madagascar, accounts for 75 per cent of the vanilla on the market. Vanilla from Tahiti and Mexico makes up the remainder, but is much harder to get hold of. Long, black, thin and wrinkled, vanilla pods contain thousands of tiny black seeds, which are used to flavour mainly sweet dishes, and go particularly well with chocolate.
The presence of tiny black specks in a vanilla-flavoured dish is confirmation that real vanilla has been used.
Choose the best
Look for fragrant, very dark brown, almost black pods that are slightly wrinkled, but still supple, with a slightly oily, shiny surface. Length is an indication of quality - 15-20 centimetres is best.
Slit the pod open along its length, then scrape out the small, sticky seeds using the tip of a small, sharp knife.
In an airtight container in a cool, dark place - it should keep for up to two years.
Add the seeds directly to dishes to flavour them, or add pods to boiling milk to infuse it with a vanilla flavour, then use to make milk-based puddings.
Allow the pod to dry out for a couple of days, then add it to a jar of sugar. After a week or so, the flavoured sugar can be used for baking.