The vanilla plant is actually part of the orchid family and is one of the only fruit-bearing orchids of culinary use. Native to Central and South America, Vanilla found its way to Europe through the Spanish during the age of exploration. The majority of Vanilla that we consume today is pollinated by hand, which is a slow and expensive process. This is due to natural pollination only happening with the help of the small melipone bees which are not found outside Central and South America. As the best tasting Vanilla is widely accepted to be that grown on Madagascar and its surrounding islands, the only way to grow it is to continue to hand-pollinate it.
If you use vanilla essence and have never tried using whole Vanilla Pods or vanilla powder, then you are missing out. The chemical make up of pure Vanilla is so complex that it is almost impossible to re-create, so the only way to get real vanilla flavour is to use real Vanilla. Use in any sweet dessert or cakes and if a recipe calls for just the seeds, never throw the pods out. Simply put them into a jar with some organic un-refined sugar and leave to infuse. You will then have your own vanilla sugar for use in baking, hot drinks and desserts.