Vanilla is boring. Vanilla is plain. Vanilla is unoriginal. I was guilty of holding these assumptions — these monstrous smears, really — before I travelled to the ancestral home of the regal vanilla pod.
Papantla, an ancient village growing out of the jungle highlands of Veracruz, has guarded the secrets of vanilla since it was used by the Aztecs to flavour their chocolate. Centuries ago, indigenous Totonacs unlocked the power of the orchid, developing an incredibly complex, years-long process that converts a pedestrian-looking beanpod into a richly aromatic, leathery sprig that is among the world’s most sought-after delicacies.
Real vanilla, I would learn, is a victim of its own success, spawning a massive industry of artificial flavouring that has quite unfairly given vanilla a bad name.
For a town so steeped in mystery, Papantla is surprisingly easy to reach — it’s about five hours from Mexico City and four hours from the port of Veracruz via a comfortable luxury bus line — and makes a fine weekend escape.
The village is just 10 minutes from the ruins of El Tajin, which contain some stunning pyramids and ballcourts. The first thing my wife and I noticed when we arrived was Papantla’s zocalo, or main plaza, easily one of the prettiest in Mexico. The manicured walkways are inlaid with mosaic tiles, and a domed kiosk boasts paintings with scenes of Papantla life.
Papantlans, including indigenous Totonacs dressed in traditional sandals and white cotton pants, crowded the zocalo, chatting on benches and hurrying to work and school. Two fine restaurants overlook the plaza, offering local snacks like molotes, picadas and shrimp empanadas.
A statue in the square gives the mythological origins of vanilla. According to the legend, when a Totonac princess defied her father and married a commoner, the lovers were captured and beheaded. When their blood hit the ground, the vines of the orchid began to grow.
To learn more about vanilla, we found a Totonac guide through the Hotel Tajin, which offers the city’s best lodgings — clean, comfortable rooms are about $50 (approx Rs 2,300) a night. Our guide took us to his brother-in-law’s greenhouse, where he was just beginning the laborious process of cultivating the vanilla bean (which is technically an orchid).
Don Felipe and a group of local farmers had planted vanilla vines the year before and wouldn’t harvest for another year. The thick vines were carefully spaced out in the greenhouse and required a precise amount of water, sunshine and temperature to blossom.
The flowers of the vanilla orchid — and there would be hundreds or perhaps thousands in Don Felipe’s greenhouse — must be pollinated by hand (or by the Melipona bee) within 12 hours of blooming or the beans won’t grow.
Nine months later, the vanilla pod, which resembles a green bean in its uncured state, will be picked by hand at the moment it reaches maturity.The curing process, which predates the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico by centuries, is also dizzyingly complex. The beans are first plunged into hot water to kill them and stop them from growing. They are then wrapped in cloth and sealed in an air-tight box at high temperature. The bean’s enzymes catalyse, giving vanilla its distinctive aroma and flavour.After about 10 days, the vanilla beans are dried in the sun. During this season, which takes place in the spring, Papantla is enveloped in the aroma of drying vanilla. The vanilla pods are then stored for a few more months until they are ready for to be sold.
Too good for its own good
In recent years, Mexican vanilla, considered the world’s best among aficionados, has fallen victim to huge vanilla operations in places like Madagascar (made with transplanted Mexican vanilla plants) that have driven down the world price. Don Felipe explained that vanilla harvesting is hardly profitable anymore. Don Felipe and his partners were only able to start their operation thanks to government loans.That helps explain the relative scarcity of real Mexican vanilla, even in Papantla proper.
Except for a few specialty shops selling authentic vanilla extract, the real stuff was hard to find. The closest we got was sampling some locally produced vanilla liqueur. Dark as chocolate and served over ice, the liqueur was sweet and smoky, like a rich tobacco.We left Papantla, riding past rivers, mountains and the waves crashing into the coastline, hoping that Papantla’s vanilla can make a comeback. It would be a tragedy if the world was left without something as exciting as Mexican vanilla.