Yep, Vanilla comes from Mexico!
Many people think that the vanilla bean originally came from Madagascar, but even though vanilla beans are grown there, they originated and were first cultivated in the lush state of Veracruz, which physically hugs the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, vanilla grown outside of Mexico has to be pollinated by hand, since the only insect that will pollinate it is the stingless Melipona bee, which only lives, and can only survive, in Mexico.
Vanilla, the fruit of the world’s only orchid with an edible pod, has been used since pre-Hispanic times by the Totonacs, first, then by other indigenous tribes throughout Mexico. The Totonacs were so incredibly resourceful they were able to develop the growing, harvesting and curing and drying methods that make vanilla edible. It was so revered it was used for sacred rituals, as well as for currency. And it is in Totonac lands, mainly in Papantla, where the finest vanilla thrives today.
Vanilla: the legend lives on
Not only does vanilla have a matchless flavor and one of the most sensual fragrances, it also has a deeply romantic tone — just like the legend behind it. Here’s how it goes.
According to Totonac mythology, the flower was born when Princess Xanath, in charge of caring for the Temple of the Goddess of Harvest along with eleven maidens, fell in love with Zkatan-Oxga. A doomed romance from the start, as Xanath’s father would never accept him as a son in law. They eloped and were captured and killed without having the chance to even kiss. In the place they were killed, were their blood spilled, a climbing vanilla orchid grew in an eternal embrace, as only true lovers would.
Harvesting vanilla is an art
Legend or not, the very delicate vanilla plant is actually a temperamental species of orchid that has to be treated like a capricious bride to be in order for it to bloom, be pollinated, harvested, and cured and dried in such a way that either vanilla beans or vanilla extract can exist.
The flowers open up for one day only. One single day. After the flowers open, there are only 12 hours in which they have to be hand pollinated, if not pollinated by the Melipona bee. Then the pods take six months until they are ready to be harvested by hand, while still green, so they won’t dry out, crack open, or touch the ground and therefore lose the essential oils that give vanilla its unique flavor and aroma. During all those months, the caretakers have to make sure there is enough shade, enough air, just enough of everything, really.
Once hand picked, the vanilla beans are put in hot water or in a hot oven to stop them from maturing further. After that, they bask in the sun during the day and are placed in drawers at night to sweat. The process is repeated every day for 20 to 28 days. It is known in Mexico as “beneficio,” a process for which the world has to be grateful: for the earthy, almost other-worldly smell that makes me practically swoon and the flavor that makes any ingredient sing.
It even makes men fly!
It is said that it is because of vanilla that the Voladores or Papantla fly. According to myth, over 400 years ago the gods stopped the rains because the people weren’t paying enough attention to them. The acrobatic dance ceremony was created to appease the gods and bring back the rains, so the vanilla beans could grow and thrive. The Voladores de Papantla continue to dance, and vanilla in Mexico continues to thrive. The best part is that wherever you may live in the world, you can get your hands on vanilla grown, harvested and cured in Papantla. Once you smell it and use it, you will be as I am, bewitched.