Vanilla became one of Mexico’s great gifts to the world, the story goes, the moment Aztec emperor Montezuma lifted a gilded tortoise-shell goblet before Hernan Cortez, the first European to taste the unimagined flavor from a spice born of an orchid.
From Montezuma’s cup of friendship, Cortez drank an exotic mix of cacao, corn, honey and vanilla, the fruit of vines from a place Cortez would name Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, the rich village of the true cross.
If Montezuma had been better at peering into the future, he would have realized that not only would most of his treasure, and likely the golden chalice itself, end up on Spanish ships, but that this one unrequited gesture of sharing would transform desserts for all time. Cookies, cakes, ice cream and ultimately a very special North American granola, would all be made irresistible by one of the most delicate plants in nature.
At the time, vanilla was not only limited geographically, but also dependent on a single bee variety for pollination. The vine itself could not survive without the sheltering canopy of broadleaf evergreens. Vanilla was as fragile and fleeting as a beautiful flower, because that’s exactly what it is — the only edible orchid in the world.
More than three centuries after Europeans’ first sweet taste, Domingo Gaia Tossi arrived in Veracruz from Italy, and was as surprised as the conquistadors had been to discover the real treasure of Veracruz: its ancient, archetypal vanilla bean. Five generations later, the Gaya family maintains a thriving enterprise that grows, processes and trades this most original of vanillas — grown purely and veganically, without chemicals or animal inputs of any kind.
“We have dedicated our lives to taking care of what our ancestors began,” says Domingo Gaya, who handles exports from Monterrey, far north of the company’s Veracruz facility. “We think our vanilla is the best vanilla in the world, because first of all vanilla originated here, born in this part of the world. And so the traditions of growing vanilla go back many generations. In addition, the weather conditions here are perfect for vanilla, giving it much better flavors, aromas and juices than vanillas from other places.”
Three hundred years after Cortez brought vanilla from the New World, Europeans were still mystified by the plant’s inability to bear fruit outside Mexico. The orchids would bloom, but never produce a pod of beans. Back in Veracruz, farmers who knew the truth of vanilla’s life cycle named this “the curse of Montezuma.”
In 1836 botanist Charles Morren discovered a secret that only the Mexican Melipona bee had fully understood: every vanilla blossom must be pollinated within several hours of opening or the flower will never produce a pod. Morren devised a technique for pollinating the blossoms by hand, and vanilla was suddenly free to grow in any tropical land.
In the Gaya family’s fields and greenhouses, this intricate waltz plays out daily. The Melipona bee is a somewhat unreliable contract worker; and so even here, in the birthplace of vanilla, farmers use hand pollination to coax the blossoms into creating their rare treasure. If it seems as if the plant needs convincing, the descendants of the pre-Aztec peoples do in fact believe that. They liken cultivation to a courtship, the beautiful blossom to a woman.
“If the flower is not treated or touched properly, then you can harm the flower and it will die,” a field worker told us. “In the Totonaca culture the vanilla flower is treated like a woman, you have to take care of her, treat her right, be very gentle. The most important thing is it has to be treated with a lot of love; there must be harmony between the farmers, otherwise the plant can feel negative feelings from the fights or disagreements.”
To the native workers, this courtship isn’t simply a metaphor. They talk to the plants, and dress in white when approaching the shy blossoms. And punctuality is important on these dates too. “They check the flowers every single day in the morning,” our field guide remarked. “If it’s not open in the morning, then they come back in the afternoon to see if it’s open. They have to be vigilant of the flower to catch it at the right time.”
On each stem, only a few blossoms can be pollinated at once; the vine is not strong enough to support too many successful courtships at one time. After the flower is pollinated, a cradle of small precious beans arrives in nine months.
Harvesting and curing the beans are similarly time-sensitive — and labor-intensive. Because the pods must be hand-picked as soon as they ripen, the plants are checked every day. Once harvested, the beans are dried over a period of three months, in ovens that have been in use for generations, and also out in the brilliant sun. “The sunlight is the element that makes the vanilla bean to look and taste like it is,” a Gaya worker explained.
Today vanilla is grown in many places, from Indonesia and New Guinea to Madagascar and Tahiti. It’s come a long way from Montezuma’s raised cup, which in retrospect seems like an inadvertent toast to a new civilization rising, as another slipped away. Yet centuries later, it is still the Veracruz sun that warms the richest vanilla, prodding the curling vines skyward, and cheering the pretty, demure blossoms blinking open at dawn.
Not far from Gaya’s groves lie ruins that the native Totonacas abandoned 900 years ago. Each year the people of Veracruz flood onto the grounds to celebrate the spice that has shaped their history and flavored their identity. A woman wearing a crown of vanilla beans passes gracefully through the crowds. She is the Vanilla Queen, the travel brochures say. But the native farmers know better. Draped in white, they compete for her favor, and begin again that gentle ancient courtship that has flowered every season, and always will.
— Charlie Dodge