Arising from the blood of a slain princess, the Caxixanath ~ Vanilla ~ vine grew.
Tzacopontziza was a Totonac princess, a priestess in the service of Tonoacayohua, the goddess of agriculture, but she fell in love with a mortal and the two fled into the forest. When they were found, both were beheaded. From the blood of the princess sprouted the vanilla vine, curling around a small tree which sprouted from the blood of her lover. Caxixanath means hidden or mysterious flower, Tzacopontziza means morning star: each vanilla flower blooms only for a short time in the early morning. Xanath is the traditional Totanac name for vanilla; the word vanilla comes from the Spanish and means little pod.
Vanilla is one of the two edible flowering orchids in the world, the other grows in the Australian outback and it’s the tubers which are eaten. In the case of vanilla it is the seeds and the seed pod which are used as a flavoring. Vanilla is native to Mexico and Central America: in Costa Rica there are several varieties occurring naturally. It was the Totonac peoples from the (current) Veracruz area of Mexico who first cultivated the vine. We try to go to Veracruz every year to learn from the Totonac descendants who continue to cultivate this fantastic vine.
The process of growing, harvesting and curing the vanilla is long and complicated: there’s a good reason why vanilla is so expensive! The vine takes three years to flower. It requires heavy mulch and dappled shade to thrive. Many farmers grow their vanilla on citrus trees, we grow ours on madera negra (a nitrogen fixer).
Individual flowers form on racemes or flower stalks, they are delicately perfumed and very elegant flowers, five petalled and white with green and lemon tinges. The flowers open around 6am in the morning, by 10am they have closed – so it’s a short time for pollination. Even more there seems to be an optimal time for each flower – around 8:30 to 9am is when our flowers have the greatest chance of fertility. Vanilla is pollinated naturally by a small black stingless bee. The bees build nests throughout the vanilla orchard, small nests usually in tree stumps, each with a long often twisting entrance tunnel made form dark wax. However most if not all commercial vanilla is hand pollinated. We pollinate our vanilla by hand. Each morning during the flowering season – here in May – we wander through the vines pollinating each individual flower using a toothpick. It’s a strangely intimate experience, very meditative, gentle and soothing. It’s a beautiful time to be in the orchard, and the close connection with each flower and the act of pollination itself is very sweet and relaxing. Something about the rhythm and exchange and the scent of each flower: hard to describe, but beautiful. We know about three days later if the pollination took; the flower is slow to fall, and the ovary begins to swell and grow. As each flower opens one by one along the raceme we know what the pollination rate is as we work.
After the flower season finishes we watch the pods or beans develop, but other than maintenance we leave them in peace for the 6 months it takes for the beans to stretch and swell. By November they will be ready to harvest.
After we gather the beans or pods the real work begins. Vanilla must be treated with care, patience and respect for at least the next 40 days. Firstly the fresh, still green, pods must be wrapped in cloth and allowed to ‘sweat’ for some days. Then begins the process of unwrapping them each morning and spreading them in the morning sun. When the heat becomes too strong, they must be gathered once again and wrapped. When the afternoon begins to cool but the sun is still out, we unwrap and spread the beans again. Before it gets too cold we rewrap and sweat the beans overnight. This happens – traditionally – for 20 days. If the sun does not come out the beans remain wrapped. And so it continues – our harvest often falls when the weather here changes, so it can really take 40 days or so to cure our beans. But with vanilla there can be no rush. She needs time to develop those rich aromatic flavours. We become familiar with each bean, handling each up to four times a day. Patience and respect. After this initial curing process the vanilla is wrapped and carefully set aside for a further three months. Oftentimes tiny white crystals develop along the seams in the bean.
The tiny seeds inside each vanilla bean are called caviar, understandably so: we use the whole bean in our chocolate. Adding it first when we hand mill our nibs, then putting it in the stone melanguers for conching along with the cacao.
Vanilla has had a very long love affair with cacao and was used in pre-Hispanic Mexico and Central America as a flavoring for the cacao. When the Spanish came they took Vanilla back to Europe and from there spread it around the tropics.
Vanilla, medicinally, harmonizes and deepens the medicinal value of other herbs. It soothes and eases, and it sweetens. Like a young maiden it coaxes the best out of all it meets, bringing sweetness and acceptance even enthusiasm into blends. It is considered a male aphrodisiac and is used to attract male bees – although it is often used as an insect repellent. Energetically it brings together and strengthens not only the bonds between us, but brings sweetness and joy into the mix. Patience, respect and a simple understated elegance are inherent in the plant and the process of creating the spice. Vanilla as a spice is really a co-creation because of the pollination and curing processes. Whenever you have true vanilla you have the care, work and intention of the farmer right with you. In most commercial farms the pollination is done by women because of the finer dexterity and care women have for the flowers, and in most cases it is the women who cure the beans as they are most likely to be there at the right time by the farmhouse. There really is something special about vanilla, it commands our attention and our dedication – and it rewards us beautifully for our efforts.