The ancient Totonaco Indians of Southeastern Mexico were the first people to discover the secret of vanilla. They believed vanilla was a food of the Gods. When the Aztecs conquered the Totonaco, they adopted many of their beliefs. Vanilla had been enjoyed by the Aztecs for hundreds of years before their emperor Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Cortés with a golden goblet containing a chocolate drink flavoured with 'tlilxochiti' – a black vanilla pod.

Exactly how vanilla made its way from Mexico to Europe is uncertain. Some say Cortés took it back to Spain, where he presented it to the king. Others attribute its introduction to a Franciscan monk, Bernardino de Sahagun, who went to Mexico in 1529 and wrote a 'General History of the Things of New Spain'. But no matter who takes the credit for bringing vanilla back to the Old World, it was a Spaniard by the name of Piso who gave the plant its name: he called it 'vaynilla' – meaning 'little pod' or 'scabbard', a reference to the shape of the dried vanilla bean.

It did not take the Europeans long to discover vanilla's attraction as a flavour enhancer for coffee and chocolate, and factories producing chocolate with vanilla were established in the second half of the 16th century. However, it was not until the 17th century that it was recognised as a flavour in its own right. In 1602, Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I of England, suggested that vanilla had sufficient character to stand alone – and later the Queen refused to eat or drink anything that had not been enhanced with vanilla.

But it was probably the French who first explored the full potential of vanilla. They used it in chocolate, confections and ice cream, as well as for scenting perfumes and tobacco. Even today, the primary fragrance for French bath preparations is vanilla.

Prior to 1841, attempts to cultivate the vanilla orchid outside of Mexico failed as it was found that the local Melipona bee was the only way for pollination. As a result, Mexico had a 300-year-long monopoly on vanilla production. This was discovered by botanist Charles Morren in 1837 as he pioneered a method of artificially pollinating the plant. Unfortunately, the method was proven financially unworkable and it was not until 1841 that a French-owned slave named Edmond Albius, a native of the Bourbon Islands, discovered the plant could be hand pollinated – a method which continues to be used today. Using the hand pollination method, Madagascar gained control of the world vanilla market, producing 80% of the world's supply by the early 20th century, and 50-60% today.