I have come to Veracruz to glimpse the elusive vanilla orchid on the vine, to catch the rich scent of glossy beans curing in the sun, to breathe in the fragrance of the world’s finest vanilla in its Mexican birthplace. Everything up to this point has been a sort of lagniappe, as the Creoles say, a delicious extra. Such is the nature of obsession.
It is about 10:30 AM and as usual, the sun is brutally hot and the air thick with moisture. Norma Gaya is driving the three of us—Susana, Deborah and myself—down a rough dirt road so deeply rutted that we are thrown from side to side as we jounce along at just a few kilometers an hour. I notice that she has woven two vanilla beans in and out of the louvers of the air conditioning vents which are now wafting a faint scent towards us.
Norma lives and breathes vanilla. At 35, she is willowy and cool, a bit ethereal except for the smattering of light freckles across her nose. Today she is wearing a watery aqua silk dress screened with pale lavender orchids. With her sleek hair and delicate sandals, she looks as if she might be throwing a garden party.
But this is a work day. When we arrived at the Gaya Vai-Mex offices in the dusty town of Gutierrez Zamora earlier this morning, she had been on the telephone for hours talking with distributors of her family’s vanilla. Founded in 1879, the company is one of Mexico’s leading producers of high quality vanilla extract and plump, flavorful beans. In the past, its customers have included Nielsen Massey, a purveyor of Madagascar, Mexican and Tahitian vanilla to Williams Sonoma and other upscale gourmet stores.
Last year Gaya Vai-Mex bought 28 tons of green vanilla beans from 400 farmers in four states; many of them harvest only a few kilos a year. But Gaya also owns an 11-hectare organic vanilla plantation, where 11,000 vines are planted. This is where we hope to see the orchid in bloom.
We lurch down the road through groves of naranja or orange trees, some heavily laden with fruit. Here and there palms erupt with clusters of bright red berries. Up ahead a brilliant blue and black butterfly swoops and swirls. Norma brakes suddenly. “Look,” she says. “There is a flower.”
We tumble out and gingerly pick our way through tall grass. Vanilla vines are all around us, pale green, with bulbous stems and fleshy leaves, clambering up naranja as well as the native cacuite and pichoco trees which have traditionally been used as tuteurs or supports. Some trees are gnarled and have enormous woody excrescences where they have been repeatedly cut back to reduce the amount of shade they produce; a few spindly branches grow out of these living stumps, but clearly their mission in life is to support the sun-loving vine.
And there it is: A creamy, greenish-yellow blossom, not much bigger than a silver dollar. This is a modest flower, a virginal cousin of the more colorful and lascivious orchids that mimic female genitalia. In the nursery trade, the flower might even be termed “insignificant,” but up close, its delicate petals and perfectly formed lip seem to guard the entrance to an exotic, mysterious world. In the language of the Totonac Indians who originally domesticated vanilla, the flower is called xanat or caxixanath. In Spanish the latter means flor recondita, or “hidden flower.”
Now for the seduction: A man bends close, his brown face a study in concentration. He clasps the flower in one hand and with the other, gently inserts a tiny pointed stick deep into its heart, lifting a flap that separates the pollen-bearing anthers from the female sex organs. With his finger, he bends the anthers onto the stigma, coating them with pollen. Impregnation takes only a few seconds; gestation is nine months. By December, this vine will bear clusters of plump green beans that will be harvested and taken to a warehouse for curing.
Vanilla flowers bloom only once for only a few hours, usually in the morning, and it is during this window that they must be pollinated in order to produce vanilla beans. Though insects randomly perform this service in the wild, yields are bigger and more certain when the blossom is pollinated by hand. The young man standing next to us is a descendant of the ancient Totonacs who were cultivating vanilla as a sacred plant when Cortez landed on the coast of Veracruz in 1518. Every day he and ten other workers walk the plantation, checking each of the 11,000 vines for blossoms that will unfurl tomorrow ,just as his forbears may have done centuries ago.
There is something soft, almost feminine about the traditional way of growing vanilla in Mexico. But it may not be economically viable, especially in a world in which Madagascar, the world’s largest producer, sets the prices. Three years ago, when cyclones devastated the island, prices soared to $500 per kilo. Today, a kilo brings just $100, and many small farmers can no longer afford to grow labor-intensive vanilla.
Norma Gaya has seen the future and it is just down the road: a modern greenhouse, covered with black shade cloth, watered by automatic sprinklers. Here 3,000 vines are planted in raised peat moss beds on split bamboo canes; two to four vines can be planted at the base of each 10-foot cane, then looped up and down to make pollination and harvesting easy. “Outside it takes four years for a vine to bear its first flower; in here, only two,” she explains.
And yet the lure of tradition is strong. Lately she’s been thinking of planting some cojon de gato trees. It’s a very old tree, once thought to be the best companion for the vanilla vine. Who knows? It might be wonderful.