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Mexican vanilla: Origins and cultivation

One of our recent research trips was to the Mexican state of Veracruz. Throughout our travels, the rest of the research team and I have been taking notes, photographs and videos to document the ingredients, techniques, dishes and traditions of the many different countries and places in Latin America. Our focus on this particular trip was vainilla (vanilla).

One of our recent research trips was to the Mexican state of Veracruz. Throughout our travels, the rest of the research team and I have been taking notes, photographs and videos to document the ingredients, techniques, dishes and traditions of the many different countries and places in Latin America. Our focus on this particular trip was vainilla (vanilla).

Vanilla cultivation, up close and personal 

Back to 2009. After numerous calls and e-mails, we had an appointment to visit an organic vanilla plantation to see the drying and curing process. We arrived on the beautiful 10-hectare (approximately 24.7-acre) plantation at 9 a.m. Our hosts were waiting for us with the sad news that, it being late February, we were early for the flowering season, which is from March to May. A little disappointed, we started walking with the slight hope of finding one open orchid.

The field was surrounded with banana and plantain trees that act as filters to keep the area free of pesticides. The vanilla vines grow in humid tropical areas 10 to 20 degrees from the equator at a temperature between 75 and 85 degrees F. Because vanilla also requires a good balance between sun and shade, the vines need to grow next to another tree, called a “tutor.” Each vine is attached to a tutor; orange, pichoco, coquite and cojón de gato trees are favored in Papantla.

A vine will live approximately 10 years, bearing flowers when it is two to four years old, and producing 40 to 100 flowers per year. The flower is hermaphroditic, meaning it has both anther and stigma. Originally, pollination was left to nature and the rare melipone bees, or abeja de monte. They are wild black bees that have no sting, and for hundreds of years, no one was able to figure out that they were the ones pollinating the vanilla flowers. After years of study and observation, someone in Madagascar discovered how to hand-pollinate the flowers with the help of a small stick, similar to a toothpick.

We were learning so much that day, and while walking through the trees and vines, we were lucky enough that Don David, one of the campesinos (farmers), found an open flower. The flowers open just one day and only for a few hours, always between 7 a.m. and noon. We almost ran to see it, but we had to hold our excitement until the video camera was ready to shoot. Camera! Action! Don David lifted the anther from the stigma, pressed the pollen against the stigma with the small wooden stick, and voilà, the fertilization happened in front of our eyes. After the fertilization, the flower will close within a half hour. Don David marked the date and planned to check back in a couple of weeks to see if the pollination was successful and a pod had begun growing.

Post-harvest production: water control and flavor development

Approximately nine months later, the green stem of the vanilla flower will turn yellow, indicating that it is time to harvest. Each pod has to be picked when it is perfectly ripe; not doing so will diminish the quality of the vanilla. Then the curing process will start. The vanilla will be washed, transferred to racks to drain for five minutes and placed in cedar boxes. Once the boxes are filled, they are transported to the ovens, where the boxes will be displayed, one on top of another, until there are 360 of them. The lines of boxes will be covered with wet blankets and the oven will be turned on to 60 degrees C for three days. The pods are removed from the cedar boxes, placed into large boxes for one day and moved to special wooden racks, called espigueros, for three days. Then, every day for a period of three to six months, the pods will be laid in the sun on top of straw mats, or petates, from 8 a.m. until noon. Each day, they are then collected, wrapped in the straw mats and covered with blankets to sweat. Through this labor-intensive sun drying/sweating process, the vanilla loses weight and develops its characteristic flavor—otherwise it would be almost like a green bean.

A labor of love

Nowadays the largest producer of vanilla is Madagascar, followed by Indonesia, Mexico, India and Uganda. But quantity is not necessarily quality, and there are some important factors to consider in getting a high-quality vanilla:

  • Each vanilla plant should be grown at least one meter apart, and the vine should be rather small—to be within the reach of a man—for easier supervision. Another benefit of a smaller plant is that it is able to direct its energy into producing better pods. If allowed to grow taller, the plant’s energy would instead be mostly dedicated to gaining biomass.
  • If too many orchids from the same plant are pollinated, the result will be a good amount of produce (vanilla pods) of lower quality. This in turn creates another problem in that the plants will be weaker.
  • A fair trade policy is important so that workers don’t let plants grow taller or fertilize more orchids in order to sell more produce of poorer quality.

—Chef Iliana de la Vega, Mexican/Latin cuisine specialist at the Center for Foods of the Americas at the CIA, San Antonio.

Flan de Vainilla (Mexican Vanilla Flan)

A type of baked custard, this vanilla-scented dessert is smooth and creamy. When caramelizing the sugar, slowly swirl the pan over the heat to keep the temperature even. As the sugar continues to cook, you may smell a change before you start to see it. The first hints of a golden color will start to appear in the melted sugar. From this point on, the caramel will cook quickly, so watch it closely. The best caramel taste develops when the sugar is cooked until it is a very deep golden brown.

2 cups sugar
8 cups whole milk
6 eggs
6 egg yolks
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract, or ½ vanilla bean, split open

Preheat the oven to 350°F and position the baking rack in the middle of the oven. Lightly grease the bottom and sides of eight ramekins and set them on a kitchen towel in a deep baking pan.

Place 1 cup of sugar in a heavy, non-enameled saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, swirling the pan often as the sugar melts. Continue cooking until the sugar turns a deep golden brown. Immediately remove from the heat and divide the caramel evenly among the ramekins.

Combine the milk and the remaining sugar in a medium saucepan. Cook the mixture over medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Do not let the mixture boil. Gently simmer for 30 minutes, or until the mixture has reduced by half.

Whisk the eggs, yolks and vanilla in a bowl and slowly add the reduced milk, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from cooking. Pass the custard through a fine sieve, pour into the prepared ramekins, and cover the baking pan with aluminum foil.

Place the baking pan with the ramekins in the oven and pour hot water into the pan to come two-thirds of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the custards are set but still jiggle in the middle when gently shaken, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool, about 1 hour.

To serve, run a thin knife under hot water and then around the edge of the custard. Place a flat dish on top of each mold and invert to unmold the custard. The caramel in the bottom of the cup will form a sauce.

Makes 8 servings

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