¡Viva Vanilla!

By Liz Rutledge

On Day 3 of our Reefs to Rockies exploration of Mexico, we toured a vanilla plantation in Guiterrez Zamor (about a four hour drive north of Veracruz).  A lovely señora, Sylvia (with our guide Jorge’s translation), explained in loving detail how the vanilla plants are grown, harvested, beans processed and sold.

When we arrived in our 18 person van, we unloaded and walked up a steep walkway past beautiful murals and cypress trees stretching towards the heavy, grey sky.  The vanilla plantation was founded by “finca” (estate boss) Orlando Gaya who immigrated to Mexico from Italy in 1873.  Since then, the plantation has been operated with organic quality and purity as the highest priorities.

When we visited the orchid museum in Coatepec, we learned that vanilla is an orchid (which means “testicles” because of the shape of the bulbs).  The two vanilla orchid plants grown at the Orlando Gaya Vanilla Plantation are Planifolia and Pompona.  Planifolia’s flavor is a bit bitter, but the aroma is like chocolate.  Whereas Pompona smells like prunes and tastes sweet.  Vanilla likes to grow on two types of trees: Phichoco with its red seed pods (which we saw at the botanical gardens outside Coatepec) and the pequeena (a.k.a. Mexican bamboo).  They can also grow on coconut trees (or Erythrina lanceolata) Sylvia described the vanilla plants as the “princesses” and the trees they like to grow up as the “princes”. They have a very mindful, symbiotic relationship in which the female vanilla plant nurtures the
protective male trees.

These vanilla plants are very sensitive and will actually switch genders if they are exposed to too much stress.

As we walked further along the path, we saw the shade houses where these plants are painstakingly nurtured and tended.  These plants have become extremely high maintenance over time and must be hand pollinated one flower at a time.  The tenders use a thin bamboo stick to spread pollen from one bloom to the next and it takes about a month to hand pollinate 6,000 plants.  They say that these vanilla plants have become “lazy”.  The hope with some of the experimental plantings at this vanilla plantation is to make these precious plants more resilient.  Interns are working to assist in this process.

The vanilla orchid, once planted, takes 2 ½-3 years to produce flowers.  Then, once pollinated, the flowers take nine months to produce the vanilla pods/beans.   Only the healthiest are harvested and as the workers find fungus, worms or other disease, those plants are sterilized to prevent the spread of the disease.

The newer 19 to 25-year-old workers at the vanilla plantation get on-the-job-training as they are taught to pollinate, investigate, nurture, pick, inspect, separate, process and package the vanilla pods.  Separation happens along a long conveyor belt and the pods are divided into hierba “grass”, pezon “nipple”, quebrados “broken”, and entero “complete”.  The less perfect ones are used for ice cream and other vanilla products where appearance is not as important.  Every step along the way, they are making sure it is a good, disease, pest and chemical-free product.

Once picked and separated, the beans are dried on mesh racks, put in a sort of “sauna” for three days, then dried further over the course of six months in a large room, regularly inspected, wrapped in blankets and kept safe.  Once they are perfectly ready, they are divided yet again by level of quality and processed into bags of seeds, powder, pods, etc. and “vaulted” in stainless steel boxes behind cages, in a building with bars on the windows and electrified wires.  Finally, the vanilla is inspected in a laboratory for a final inspection.  At US$5/vanilla bean, we can now understand why they take such painstaking care to protect them.

After touring the processing facility, we were given a sample of a drink made with equal parts vanilla liquor and sweetened condensed milk (and ice) called beso totonaca (from the name of the Beso Totonaca Kingdom).

As you would expect, our tour ended in the gift shop where they sell many vanilla products (extract, beans, candles, ice cream and a liquor (Xanat is a brand they sell here)).

A good Mindfulness practice includes gratitude so it is good to acknowledge and thank the vanilla and its tenders for the patient process which it goes through to arrive in our chocolate chip cookies, cakes, coffees, ice cream and more.

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Coffee and Cycadas

Our exploring Mexico Reefs to Rockies, “In Search of Coffee, Vanilla, and Monarch Butterflies”, journey continued with an authentic (and delicious!) breakfast at the recently renovated and restored Hacienda Zimpizahua after we checked out of our hotel, Casa Real de Café.  The weather was a beautiful, warm and sunny treat.  We enjoyed dining al fresco and family style in the courtyard.  Breakfast included sopes with frijoles, green or red chile, and queso, chicharones, huevos, bread, corn torillas, chorizo, fresh squeezed orange juice and delicious, local coffee from the nearby plantation.

The hacienda was formerly owned by the “Finca” (landowner/boss) who ran a coffee plantation.  A still functioning water wheel provides nostalgia from the grand days of the Mexican coffee industry.  As we followed the red tile paths around the property, we were led by our guide, Jorge, to the patio where the coffee beans used to be spread out and dried in the hot Mexican sun.  Borderline slave workers would spread the beans in a single layer for drying over hot concrete and then scramble to collect it back if rain clouds rolled in.  The process is more slightly efficient now, but the glamour of the coffee industry has faded as the price of coffee beans has plummeted to 3 Pesos/Kilo (~US$0.32 / pound). 

The grounds of the Hacienda Zimpizahua is as beautiful as a botanical garden with orchids, air plants, a koi pond and poinsettias sprinkled throughout.  From a balcony, we had a crystal clear view of Pico de Orizaba, the 19,000’ high dormant volcano.  Along the road to and from what was the main reason for the road (the Hacienda), we witnessed bee hives, coffee plants (some covered with banana leaves to protect them from the recent unseasonable cold), roaming dogs and a workers strike protesting the recent developers infiltrating the region with no consideration for the landowners’ rights.

A quick drive down the road brought us back to where we had the cooking class the previous night…a local coffee plantation.  We learned all about how coffee is grown, how if it is not local to the region, it doesn’t thrive as well as the local varietal, when it blooms and when the beans are red, ripe and ready to harvest.  Jorge again translated for us all about the different processes and how they affect the flavors.  We learned about the worms and fungi that contaminate the coffee beans causing them to be rejected by these dedicated coffee growers.  The best roasted coffee beans are a matte brown, but not super dark, not shiny and have a marzipan colored line in the middle indicating the oils are still in the bean.  (If the beans are shiny, all the oils have already been released along with most of the flavors).

Our coffee guide emphasized how we must be Mindful about deforestation and climate change…factors that will affect whether or not we can enjoy really good coffee in the future.  Coffee plants grow best in dappled sun light with a canopy above and biodiversity all around.  Coffee plantations provide homes for a plethora of flora and fauna as well as homes for hundreds of bird species.

Our coffee plantation tour concluded with an elaborate tasting where we explored the delicate, intricate flavors of the coffee either as a shot of espresso, a cappuccino, a latte, or straight out of the sifon  (siphon – a process where a hot halogen light bulb heats a round flask of water and then an open topped funnel of sorts suctions the water through a filter up through the coffee grounds and then, as it cools, the coffee sifts back through to the flask ready for drinking at the perfect temperature for tasting once it’s poured in a cool, ceramic cup.  Flavors of hazelnut, chocolate, vanilla and caramel swirled on our palates.  Alex (the baristo) also produced some impressive latte art.  Three pounds of this strictly pure and meticulously grown and processed coffee later, we were on our way…although I’m not sure how I’m getting it home!

After we had our fill of Arabica, we went to a local restaurant and I ate a lunch of the local smoked trout, rice, vegetables and brown beer.  It was one of our group members’ birthday and we all sang “Buon Cumpleanos” to her and, after giggling at the relighting candles, stuffed ourselves on vanilla and prune cake (with buttercream frosting).

Our final tour of the day was of the Inecol (Instituto de Ecologia AC) Botanic Gardens.  Given that this is a tour organized by the Denver Botanic Gardens, it only made sense that we would check out the local botanic gardens, chock full of tropical flora and bird life.  But, the surprise was our botanic gardens’ guide, Phil, from Great Britain.  Despite living in Mexico for 23 years, he still has a thick British accent…which was lovely. 🙂

By far the coolest feature of this botanic gardens was their collection of Cycadas (Cycad) – these are sturdy, fern-like plants that were around on our planet Earth at the same time as the dinosaurs, but are still around today.  One of their specimens is 1500 years old.  They reproduce with seeds (two types: female and male) and need to be planted close together.  Other impressive stars of the show were the huge cinnamon tree (cinnamomum zeylanicum), the Camellia Sinensis tree (where all black tree comes from in various forms of aging), the wild bee hives in all sorts of shapes and sizes and the Mexican bamboo.

A 1500 year old cycad at the Inecol Botanical Gardens

The day ended with a four hour long drive north along Highway 180 (a two-lane road that stretches from Texas to Cancun, Quintana Roo) and our final arrival in Guiterrez Zamora, where we stayed in Hotel Santa Lucia after dinner in a town along the way – equipped with the state police packing automatic weapons and wearing bullet proof vests.  (We felt very safe).

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