Mexican vanilla mysteries
The ancient city
of Papantla built its history on vanilla. It hopes to build a better
future on it, too.
04:10 PM CST on
Friday, January 21, 2005
Back to Sparks Mexico
PAPANTLA, Mexico — The scent, at once sweet,
musky and familiar, filters in through the open car windows. Around
a sharp curve, its source comes into view. Here, the sun warms
hundreds of slender brown pods laid out on mats on the ground. The
aroma is so heavy it eclipses the other senses.
Jiménez, a Totonac descendant, works for Victor Vallejo,
one of Papantla's biggest vanilla producers. The
Totonacs are believed to have been the first vanilla
It drifts through the nose and into the mind,
whipping up memories along the way: warm cookies, homemade ice
cream, crème brûlée —
It's the essence that Aztec warriors used to
flavor their chocolate and that enchanted Europe after the great
empire's conquest by the Spanish.
This farm is in the mountains of Papantla, the
Veracruz city once legendary for its vast vanilla production, and
thought to be the birthplace of vanilla.
Most of us know vanilla only as that little
brown bottle with a label that reads "vanilla extract." But that
extract — if it's not synthetic — begins as an orchid, a pale yellow
flower. When fertilized, it produces long green pods; when ripe,
these are cured to produce the familiar scent and flavor.
For several days in December, vanilla lore and
religious fervor come together in Papantla. By law, the official
sale of vanilla beans begins each year on Dec. 10, just two days
before the Catholic feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe.
Papantla, the city once said to have perfumed
the world with the aroma of vanilla, is a changed place. Where
farmers could once be found sorting mounds of green vanilla , one is
more likely to see Internet cafés where schoolgirls send love
messages through cyberspace.
"Papantla is known for three things," says
Victor Vallejo, the farmer whose vanilla is being cured in the sun
today. It's known for its ancient ruins called El Tajín; for the
traditional Totonac performers called voladores, or fliers;
"and for vanilla," he says.
But a dramatic drop in the city's vanilla
production has changed that, he says.
"It seems that 33 percent of our identity has
been missing because there has been no vanilla," says Mr. Vallejo.
"It's the search for that identity that has
compelled me to come up with different production methods," he says,
methods that will produce more vanilla in less time.
Vanilla has been cultivated in Papantla at
least since the early 1500s, when the Totonac tribe, the first
people believed to farm vanilla, used the beans to pay tribute to
their stronger neighbors, the Aztecs.
In the 19th century, Papantla and the
surrounding region produced some 600 tons of cured vanilla beans a
year. By the middle of the last century, as consumer demand for
vanilla increased, Papantla's production slowed to a trickle. That's
because other vanilla markets had opened up around the world, and
Mexican farmers were finding easier ways to make a living.
Now, though, conditions are such that Papantla
could regain its place in the vanilla world, and farmers large and
small are relying on new technology to achieve this goal.
Today, vanilla is coveted as an ingredient in
everything from desserts to soft drinks, from candles to cigars. It
retains its romance, attributed through the years with curative, as
well as erotic, powers.
Besides the unique composition of Papantla's
soil, the region gets occasional cold snaps in winter — which other
vanilla-producing countries don't have. This makes the flavor
different from that of other vanillas, says Mr. Vallejo.
Giant food manufacturers routinely visit
Papantla, seeking farmers who can supply large amounts of vanilla.
But the success of the growers depends on the world market's
willingness to pay a consistently fair price for the product. And
that price fluctuates wildly from year to year.
If Mexican farmers could meet this demand,
they would reclaim a sense of pride and a piece of their collective
soul. "We could be the biggest producer in vanilla again," says Mr.
Growing the orchid
The heart of Papantla is its cathedral and the
adjacent park. In the park, men get their shoes shined, children
play and lovers stroll in the cool evening air. Here, too, vendors
sell a few arts and crafts made from vanilla beans. A rosary woven
from thin brown strips of vanilla will set you back about $12, and a
figure of a peasant girl or boy a few inches tall will cost about
sorts through curing vanilla beans on Victor Vallejo's
Several hotels and restaurants cater to
tourists. One can order fresh shrimp, marinated fish dishes and
enchiladas huastecas — tortillas dipped in chile sauce and
But vanilla, the city's claim to fame, is not
to be found in the local cooking; it's just too expensive. Even the
vanilla-flavored pancake syrup at a local restaurant has no real
vanilla in it.
In another ironic twist, the man who is most
vocal about Mexico's vanilla production is not native to Papantla.
Mr. Vallejo, 71, was born and raised in Mexico City. But he has been
farming and ranching in Papantla for 40 years, and many of his
employees are Totonacs.
In the last 14 years he has educated himself
about everything vanilla and has almost 20 acres of orchid plants.
He speaks at vanilla gatherings with the fervor of a romantic and
recently finished a two-year stint as head of the Veracruz Vanilla
With his silver mustache, straw hat and crisp,
pale-green shirt, he is the epitome of the gentleman farmer. He
often gives visitors a tour of his farm just outside the city.
Today, these include an Italian couple who just opened a restaurant
near Papantla; they listen attentively as he expounds on the history
of vanilla with the expertise of a college professor.
There are more than 100 species of vanilla
orchids, but just a few are used to produce vanilla. The one that
grows in Veracruz and neighboring states is Vanilla planifolia.
On the surface, the vanilla plant's needs seem
simple. It needs a tree, or "tutor," for support; a shallow layer of
nutrients; water; and sun.
But growing vanilla requires time and effort;
the flowers must be pollinated by hand. Left to mature on its own,
it takes about three years for the plants to flower and an
additional eight to nine months for the pods to ripen after
pollination. While there's a species of bee that will pollinate the
flowers, only pollinating by hand ensures fertilization of the
In the first half of the last century,
peasants successfully farmed vanilla in the mountains and traveled
to Papantla to sell it. "We were the most important people in the
vanilla world," Mr. Vallejo says.
But by the early 1940s, Mexico's oil behemoth,
Petroleos Mexicanos, began to exploit oil deposits in the area. This
coincided with the rise of citrus, banana and coffee farming and the
clearing of land for cattle ranches, says Mr. Vallejo.
Other countries — including Madagascar,
Indonesia and Tahiti — began developing vanilla exports and were
soon producing more than Mexico. Additionally, synthetic vanilla
flavors were easy to make and inexpensive to purchase.
Mexican vanilla farmers found easier ways to
make a living.
But in 2000, cyclones wiped out about a third
of the vanilla crop in Madagascar, the world's biggest producer,
opening the market for Mexican vanilla once again.
So, in the past three years, Mr. Vallejo and
the vanilla council have been helping Mexican farmers start vanilla
crops anew. There are now about 2,000 producers in Papantla, most of
them small farmers, Mr. Vallejo says. And the area used to cultivate
vanilla has increased at least sevenfold, he says.
The vanilla fervor has reached the outskirts
of the Papantla region, where, once, nearly every farmer had at
least a small patch of vanilla among his crops.
Lorenzo plucks a ripe vanilla bean off the vine on a
Papantla-area farm. The beans will be "sweated" for
several weeks to produce the familiar wrinkled beans
sold in supermarkets.
A two-hour car ride from the city, half of it
a bone-jarring trek over rock-strewn dirt roads, lies the town of
Zozocolco. Barefoot women in colorful dresses and men in traditional
tunics and pants fare better than motorized vehicles.
In the thick woods around the village are tiny
farms where, with the help of government loans, peasants are once
again cultivating small patches of vanilla. Some have been helped by
the vanilla council.
On a hillside, Alejandro Gárcia Rodríguez
tends 300 vanilla plants on about a half-acre — a tiny fraction of
the plants nurtured by people such as Mr. Vallejo. This is Mr.
Rodríguez's first harvest, and he is curing the beans himself.
Mr. Rodríguez, 35, is a high school teacher
with a master's degree in agronomy. He has adopted new technology —
making his own compost, creating retaining walls, setting up an
irrigation system. But unlike those who hedge their bets by planting
other things, he has put all his resources into vanilla.
"I have no money left for anything else," he
says. "If this harvest is successful, I may try to plant something
else. There are many other things to plant; what I lack is money.
"At this point, it's not about having a lot of
plants but seeing if I can keep these going," he says.
Inside one of Mr. Vallejo's innovative
greenhouses is the pungent smell of wet soil. Fat green vines with
dense leaves climb the trunks of the pichoco trees, which
local farmers have found provide a good guide for the vine.
More on vanilla
Two recent books give an
in-depth look at the vanilla business:
Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid, by Tim
Ecott, (Grove Press, $24)
Vanilla: A Cultural History of the World's Most Popular
Flavor and Fragrance, by Patricia Rain, (Jeremy P. Tarcher,
Another book, Zarela's Veracruz by Zarela Martinez with Anne
Mendelson (Houghton Mifflin, $35), gives an overview of the
food of Veracruz, including Papantla.
www.vanilla.com, Patricia Rain's guide to all things
vanilla, which includes recipes and vanilla products for
Unlike farmers before them, however, they
don't allow the vine to climb freely. They keep the trees pruned and
the vines looping down and then up again.
What is most new about this greenhouse,
however, is the shade cloth making up the walls and ceiling. It
provides 35 percent shade from the hot sun.
Another greenhouse has 50 percent shade cloth.
Here there are no trees to further block the sun's hot rays; the
orchid vines are guided by bamboo poles.
Vanilla orchids flower in the spring, and for
a couple of weeks, farmers are kept busy hand-pollinating every
"In the years of our highest production, we
had twice the rain that we have now," says Mr. Vallejo. "The dry
spell is right after we pollinate. You pollinate, and you wait to
see if it takes."
If fertilization occurs and there is no rain,
the plant begins to feed off itself, he says. The crop harvested in
December required irrigation.
"The plant will mature before its time" with
the right care, Mr. Vallejo says. Already he has shaved a year off
these vines' growth time.
But for all of his experimentation, some
traditions remain rooted in the hearts of his Totonac employees.
Here and there, red ribbons are tied to the
vines. This is to ward off evil spirits and ensure a good harvest,
explains Reyes Cortés Bautista, 22, one of Mr. Vallejo's Totonac
employees. "And to protect the vines from the full moon."
In Totonac culture, a full moon is responsible
for everything from ruining a crop to causing a baby's cleft palate.
"I have some plants that aren't protected,"
says Mr. Bautista, picking up a vine representing an experiment of
his own. There is no red ribbon on this plant: it's small and
withered, with leaves curved like claws.
If there's a downside to the demand for
vanilla, it's that big producers such as Mr. Vallejo have to cope
with thieves. Stolen beans will sell for a fraction of what they
could bring in a legitimate sale after Dec. 10.
In an orchard where workers have been
harvesting beans, Mr. Vallejo points to a small "V" scratched onto
the pods. "We mark every pod, and we count them," he says. "And we
have to get guards here with guns to guard them."
Even so, someone stole 75 vanilla beans from
the orchard on a recent night.
Processing the beans
For all the innovations in the vanilla trade,
the curing process in Papantla is still carried out in a
time-honored method. Workers put ripe beans through a series of
daily "sweats" to bring out the vanilla flavor.
Vanilla comes in many
forms, including whole beans, extract, powder and paste. You
can also buy vanilla sugar — but it's easy to make your own
by storing a whole bean in a sealed container of sugar.
Some companies list the country of origin on the label, but
not all. Madagascar produces most of the vanilla in the
world, followed by Indonesia and Tahiti. While not as
readily available, Papantla vanilla is still favored by many
connoisseurs who say it is smoother than other vanillas.
When buying extract at your local supermarket, read the
label. Even reputable extracts can contain synthetic
flavors. Food-label laws require manufacturers to disclose
Today, it's after noon when the beans curing
in the sun on Mr. Vallejo's farm finally feel hot to the fingertips.
Workers quickly wrap them up in the fabric on which they lie and
place them in plastic barrels.
The aroma released by the pods is also the
flavor, explains Mr. Vallejo. It's necessary to make the beans
sweat, but not so much that their flavor dissipates into the
"What we try to do is put them out in the sun
to cure the least amount of time possible, so we don't lose the
smell," he says. "Once they're hot you want to bundle them
And once bundled, they remain outdoors in the
heat so that they continue sweating in their protective coverings
without losing their aroma, he says.
It takes about three weeks of this process and
then several more months of storage out of sunlight before the beans
will reach their fullest flavor.
"Vanilla is something like love," says Mr.
Vallejo. "Little by little, constantly, that's what's going to give
you the best flavor."
The vanilla culture
In some ways, Mr. Vallejo, a dreamer with new
ideas, fits perfectly into Papantla. The city is well into the 21st
century as far as some technology goes. For instance, one has only
to walk a block or two in any direction before coming upon a room
lined with computer terminals. For 10 pesos — about a buck — or
less, one can log on to the Internet for an hour. Students do
homework and research and send instant messages to each another at
About Mexican vanilla
A lot of people like the
huge bottles of bargain vanilla sold along the Mexican
border. Many of these are synthetic vanilla. According to
vanilla expert Patricia Rain on
www.vanilla.com, some of the synthetic products contain
coumarin, a substance that is outlawed in the United States.
Check her Web site for more on Mexican vanilla.
Yet, across from the biggest Internet café,
almost on the cathedral's front steps, is a symbol of a Totonac
tradition going back hundreds of years.
Just outside the church's front doors is a
pole the voladores use as part of an ancient ritual on
weekends. A group of voladores consists of five Totonac men
in ceremonial dress who climb the 100-foot-tall pole. One man stands
on a tiny platform at the top of the pole playing a flutelike
instrument. The rest wind ropes around their waists, and together,
drop upside down from the top of the pole and spin gracefully to the
The tradition stems from a prayer ritual to
the Totonacs' rain god in times of drought. In the past, the beaded
embroidery on the voladores' red velvet costumes used
to include vanilla orchids; today, the flowers on the costumes are
Then there are the longstanding Christian
On the evening before her feast day, devout
followers of the virgin proceed to the cathedral from their
neighborhoods. Just as they have done every year prior, they carry
her likeness in the form of statues and images behind protective
glass. They are accompanied by Totonac dancers, school bands and
girls in white dresses. After Mass, they make the pilgrimage back to
their neighborhoods, where they will stand vigil over the virgin
into the night.
What price flavor?
The next morning, farmers from small villages
trickle off dusty buses at a depot a few blocks from the square.
Slung over their shoulders are canvas bags holding uncured vanilla
Make your own
Chef Rhonda Ruckman makes
her own vanilla extract. Her recipe uses Tahitian vanilla
beans, but you can use beans from Mexico, Madagascar or
To make it, you'll need 1 (750-milliliter) bottle of vodka
and vanilla beans. Ms. Ruckman uses Grey Goose vodka because
of its purity, but you can use the vodka of your choice, and
10 vanilla beans. Use fewer beans if your tastes run to
something less strong.
Slice open each bean lengthwise and, with the back of your
knife, scrape the inside of it to extract the tiny black
seeds inside. "This is where the flavor is," says Ms.
Place both the scraped pod and the tiny seeds into the
Allow it to sit for a month, shaking the container
periodically. After one month, it's ready to use. However,
you can let it sit longer, says Ms. Ruckman. "The longer you
allow it to sit, the stronger the flavor."
While she prefers a really strong vanilla flavor to minimize
sugar use in her desserts, for the average cook she
recommends adding a sugar syrup to the extract.
To make it, mix equal parts water and sugar, bring to a
boil, and then immediately remove from heat. When cool, add
6 ounces of the sugar syrup to the vanilla extract.
David Rodríguez, who says he represents
Papantla buyer Carlos Arellano, is open for business in a small
warehouse at the terminal. Hopeful farmers approach, but he is
buying vanilla for a disappointing 100 pesos (roughly $10) a kilo.
This season, world buyers have come together
in an effort to drive down the price of vanilla routinely set by the
biggest producer, Madagascar; they won't buy until the prices drop.
"Last year, I sold [vanilla] at 400 pesos,"
says María de Jesus Gómez Sánchez, who has been growing vanilla for
three years. She demands to know if the price will go up before the
end of the month.
Mr. Rodríguez responds with a question of his
own: How can he pay a premium price for her vanilla if he may not be
able to sell it later?
"It costs us great effort to grow this," Ms.
Sánchez says. "How many of us go hungry so we can work the vanilla?
... I don't plan to kill myself anymore to do this. Give me a
hundred pesos to do something else. ... This is the life of a poor
peasant. And they wonder why we go to the U.S."
Mr. Vallejo fears that small farmers such as
Ms. Sanchez will throw in the towel. Many of them, he says, will
start ripping up their plants and turn to some other crop due to the
lack of a stable vanilla price.
"They're going to deactivate at least 50
percent of what took me three years to build up," he says. "And I
feel so bad that I think we should go to the government and ask them
to help those people.
"It took us three years to build this up," he
says. "Before, you could not see vanilla anywhere. Now everybody is
talking about vanilla. And the day after tomorrow, everybody will be
talking bad about vanilla."
How he will face the farmers whom he persuaded
to grow vanilla, he doesn't know.
A few blocks away from the bus station,
Heriberto Larios, one of the two remaining vanilla buyers in
Papantla, sits in his office. For decades, he has been paying
farmers for their vanilla, curing it and then selling it to bigger
buyers all over the globe.
But today, he has bought little of the crop.
He echoes Mr. Vallejo's concerns.
"When we plant vanilla, we have to plan who we
will be selling to," he says. "We sell to the Europeans, to those in
Montreal, to the United States, to Japan. They're the buyers, but we
are at their mercy."
They've threatened not to buy vanilla until
producers drop their price, he says. Last year, he got $370 per kilo
of cured vanilla. "But it got as high as $500 a kilo," he says.
"Today ... it's $40 a kilo."
Mr. Vallejo won't be dissuaded by the volatile
market because vanilla is "the most important flavor there is," he
"What I have to do is produce with the least
cost possible so that I'll be invulnerable to them, you see?" he
"And at the end of the run, I have the
capacity to do that.
"I want to have the cheapest production so
that we can be competitive ... and we could multiply by 10 the
amount that can be produced in the world," he says.
"I may even make an extract," he says. "I may
make arts and crafts. I'll develop the national market. ... I'm
still growing, no matter what's happened."