That little bottle of vanilla extract found on the grocery shelf may now be considered indispensible, but it is a relative newcomer in the world of flavoring. And its base, the vanilla bean, may now be taken for a native of French Polynesia, but it is a relative newcomer to that part of the world.

Vanilla was indigenous to Mexico, and when the Spaniards arrived, they found the Mexican Indians already combining vanilla and cocoa into confections. Vanilla was introduced in the mid-1800s to the French Polynesian Islands, where it was cultivated in large plantations. The climate was hot and wet and particularly suited to the culture of this rather exotic plant. The demand for the bean and its essences came primarily from the perfume industry, where it was a common base and ingredient for many odors.

Tahiti and its out-islands were favored not only with the appropriate climate, but with a cheap labor force made up of local inhabitants and imported workers from the China mainland. Cheap labor was essential, since the culture of the vanilla bean is highly labor-intensive

The vine itself resembles a healthy philodendron plant with rather elongated, pulpy leaves. It grows on an extensive network of stakes and strings that support the rather weak plant and expose it both to the sun and the hands of the workers. During the twice-yearly flowering, some of the small, trumpet-shaped, greenish white flowers open each day. When that happens, a vanilla plantation breaks into a frenzy of activity. Each flower has a life span of only one day, and during that day it must be fertilized by hand. The Tahitians delicately call this the "marriage." The workers must get up at daylight, before the intense heat of the midday sun, and quickly pollinate the open flowers. It is a race against the noisy myna birds, who are especially fond of the flowers. At day's end the pollinated flowers close and die; fresh ones will take their place the next day when the whole process will be repeated. The work is tedious, demanding and even painful, since the fleshy leaves of the vanilla plant can cause a rash.

Nine to 12 weeks later the vanilla beans mature. They are from six to nine inches long, and do not yet have the characteristic vanilla odor. They are harvested by hand, just before ripening, and put in the hot sun to cure and ferment. Now the volatile oils (vanillin) are released, as the beans attain their rather sticky, rasin-colored state. Finally they are placed in small bundles and prepared for shipment.

The future of the vanilla bean took a sharp turn for the worse following World War II, when three factors coincided. The chemical industry developed an artificial vanilla extract, so the primary exporter of vanilla beans, the perfume industry, no longer was dependent on the natural source. "The same artificial extract quickly replaced natural vanilla as a flavoring in the newly popular processed foods. At the same time the large labor force needed to maintain a vanilla plantation began to turn to more attractive pursuits: The Chinese opened small commercial ventures in Tahiti and the local inhabitants became a mainstay of the newly developing tourist industry.

Finally disaster struck in the form of an insect invasion, especially detrimental to vanilla culture. As a result of these three factors, the vanilla bean industry collapsed. Today the bean is primarily raised by individuals for their own use or for sale to tourist. The beans are attractively encased in a bamboo tube and sealed for transport.

Some small plantations still continue on out-islands in French Polynesia to meet the demands that exist among gourmets for true vanilla bean flavor. Purists believe that vanilla ice cream requires the small dark flecks that indicate true vanilla bean flavoring.Others enjoy making their own vanilla extract that has twice the strength of the store variety. For those devoted to the French cuisine, the vanilla bean is an essential to making vanilla sugar, vanilla milk and other specialties. Vanilla beans can be added to a bottle of rum for use in a delicious rum punch. One bean can be used in many ways, since it is long-lived and very strong.

Buying the vanilla bean in Tahiti takes some effort. Guidebooks indicate that it is cheap (5 cents to 75 cents) and easily available in local markets. In fact, persistent efforts to locate it at the large local market failed. Hotel boutiques carried it in fancy bamboo tubes for about $10 (there are six beans in the tube).Loose beans can be found in some local grocery stores for about $1.10 each.

Vanilla beans are available in the United States from the stores specializing in spices or haute cuisine. The cost per bean ranges from 70 cents to $5. The following are suggestions for the use of the vanilla bean: VANILLA EXTRACT

Cut the vanilla bean into very small pieces. Put it into a jar and add 1/2 cup hot (140 degrees), cheap vodka. Let it age 1 week tightly sealed, and then strain out the pieces. This will be double-strength vanilla extract. VANILLA SUGAR

Put two whole vanilla beans in your electric blender or food processor and pulverize along with 3/4 cup sugar. Put the mixture in a closed jar for about a week. Sift before use. Vanilla sugar can be used in recipes that call for vanilla and sugar. It can also be dusted on top of sweet rolls or combined with cinnamon to make delicious cinnamon toast. TAHITIAN RUM PUNCH

Split 2 or 3 inches of fresh vanilla bean and soak in a bottle of dark rum for a few days to give a rich perfume to the rum. Pour a healthy jigger into a glass, add half a lime, 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, fill with ice and top with water. Have 2 before lunch and you are sure of haveing an afternoon nap (From "How To Get Lost and Found in Tahiti" by Bobbie McDermott)

Remember that your bean has a long life. Even after putting it into sugar or milk to flavor those products, it can be reused, as long as you store it in a tightly sealed jar.