Contrary to what you might think, the vanilla orchid has very little scent. And green vanilla beans don’t smell anything like vanilla extract. The secret of vanilla’s aroma is in the curing of a bean, a labor intensive process if ever there was one. It involves five months of baking, sweating, sunning, aging and all around coddling under the watchful eye of someone with the instinct and experience to know when the moment of perfection has arrived. It’s good to remember this when you feel assaulted by the price of vanilla.
We are at Gaya Vai-Mex’s hilltop warehouse which has glorious views in all directions. The air is heavy with the scent of vanilla: sweet, a little fruity, spicy, alluring. And no wonder: vanilla beans are all around us. There are thousands of dark beans lying in the sun, neatly arranged on woven straw tapetes or mats; tens of thousands more are stacked in long wooden boxes on shelves inside the warehouse. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be bathed in this intoxicating fragrance everyday.
In 2005 Gaya cured 30 tons of beans. The process begins when mature green vanilla pods are delivered to the warehouse. Whole beans are separated from those that have split. They are washed, put in long cedar boxes with screened bottoms, and placed in a big walk-in gas oven where they are baked at 70 degrees centigrade for a day. “The heat stops the maturing process,” explains Norma Gaya who is showing us her family’s business. “The ovens are the same as those used in Italy to cure silk worm cocoons.” (The Gayas came to Mexico from Italy in the late 19th century, possibly intending to farm. Instead, they saw the Totonacs growing vanilla and never looked back.)
The next day the beans are tucked into a deep box, covered with blankets and allowed to sweat. Then for five months they are gently carried in and out of the warehouse; they soak up the sun for a few hours on warm, bright mornings, in the afternoon, they are put to bed in the warehouse. Again and again they sweat. When they are adequately dried—a properly cured bean is 20% water—they are stacked in boxes ten high on racks inside the warehouse and allowed to age. When everything goes right, the beans are glossy, supple and intensely fragrant. After all that work, it’s hard to believe that the current wholesale price for one kilo of beans is just $100.
For centuries vanilla beans cured naturally on the vine. Vine-cured beans are high in vanillin, the phenolic compound which creates vanilla’s distinctive aroma; sometimes the vanillin crystallizes, giving the bean a frosty appearance. “The crystals are like black gold,” Norma says with a rueful smile. “But no one wants to buy them, so the farmers just leave the beans hanging on the vine.” When Hernan Cortez landed in Mexico in 1519, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma served him cups of cold bitter chocolate flavored with vanilla gathered in the wild. At first, the Spaniards hated the taste of chocolate, but when the Aztecs told them vanilla was an aphrodisiac, they were interested. Eventually Cortez took both back to Spain, igniting a craze.
Norma’s 72-year-old uncle Orlando is Gaya’s curing maestro. He is a burly, white haired man with a genial smile, but he keeps a close eye on the vanilla beans lying in the sun. He decides when the beans have dried out enough and when the flavor has reached its peak. Moisture control is critical: The alternative is rot and ruin.
Later we follow Orlando in his pickup truck to his own plantation. Towering over his cinderblock house is a nacaste tree, over six feet in diameter and nearly 40 feet tall. Clambering up this gargantuan trunk is an equally gargantuan vanilla vine, fatter and more bulbous than any of the well-mannered vines we have seen earlier in the day. “This is vanilla pompona,” says Orlando, as he points to a super-sized greenish yellow orchid 30 feet up in the branches of the tree. “It blooms only one day between 6 A.M and 11 A.M. When it opens, big flies come and pollinate it.”
Vanilla pompona is said to have a cherry-like aroma and is used primarily in perfume and non-food applications. Most culinary vanilla comes from vanilla planifolia, and it is this variety that is widely grown from Mexico to Madagascar. Tahitian vanilla is a hybrid of the two; its intensely floral aroma comes from the pompona side of the family.
Orlando is completely in his element as he leads us down an overgrown path, past lushly planted naranja, cocuite and pichoco, the three trees traditionally grown as tuteurs for vanilla vines. But unlike Gaya’s neat and orderly plantation, this is a vanilla jungle. Four to eight vines are planted at the base of each tree—10,000 in just three hectares—and though the growth is rampant, he knows exactly which flowers must be pollinated the next day. There are also lychee, pistachio and palm trees here; exotic birds screech as they flutter through the dense woods; butterflies float in the air.
It’s paradise, of a sort. Back at his house, Orlando offers us vodka in a tin cup. Caught off guard—well, it’s barely noon—we demur. With a wolfish grin, he raises his cup to us: “Two shots of vodka in the morning, hot milk with vanilla at night.” And he winks. Later over lunch, Norma rolls her eyes. “You should have been here last year. So many women…”