The hot and humid forest of Chinantla, a region in the state of Oaxaca just over 100 kilometers from the Gulf of Mexico, provides the perfect environment for growing vanilla. In the fifteenth century, precious vanilla from Chinantla was already paid in tribute to Aztec emperor Montezuma, and its name in the local language, kuo li gm, dates back to that period. At the time, vanilla was more valuable as a fragrance than a spice and was used by Aztec women for scenting oil pressed from mamey seeds that they used to dress their hair.
Vanilla farming fell into decline in the 19th century and was only revived in the 1990s as an alternative to coffee farming, which was, and still remains, the main activity of local inhabitants. Chinantla is the only region in the world where vanilla grows wild, as well as the area with the species’ greatest genetic diversity. Here, five or six different varieties have been identified, though not all have been fully documented. This genetic diversity and the presence of wild vanilla plants suggest that Chinantla could be the area in which vanilla first originated.
The scientific name of the vanilla plant, an orchid, is Vanilla planifolia, but it is known locally as colibrí. In Chinantla, vanilla vines are cultivated in forests where they grow on and up citrus and banana plants or on local trees like the Honduras Mahogany, known as Caoba. Vanilla leaves are long, thick, silky, and dark green, and the flowers sprout off the vine in bunches, like those on a grape vine.
Vanilla blossoms contain both male and female organs. A fine membrane divides the flower’s stigma from its rostellum and must therefore be lifted by hand, while the flower is gently pressed to pollinate the blossom. This delicate operation is carried out in the early hours of the morning from the end of March to the beginning of May. For each large bunch of flowers, no more than three or four flowers should be pollinated as the fewer seedpods that form, the higher their quality. A fresh vanilla bean is fleshy and bright green, grows up to 15-25 centimeters long, and contains thousands of tiny seeds.
Straight after the harvest, the vanilla beans are brought in the beneficio: here they are gathered and sealed in bags and laid out in the sun for 5 hours so that they reach a temperature of 72-75°C. This operation is called quemado. The next step is the secado: the beans are laid in the sunlight for 4-5 hours a day for 15 sunny days. The whole process lasts more or less two months and at the end, the scented beans should be soft, pliable and a deep coffee-brown color.
Since the start of the project, a small group of farmers (they call themselves the ‘Forest Guar- dians’) agreed to follow a series of self-imposed guidelines to guarantee vanilla quality and conserve the rich forest biodiversity. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity was subsequently involved in helping to draw up production rules, now adopted by all the Presidium producers.
San Felipe Usila, San Juan Bautista, Valle Nacional, San Andrés Teutila, San Andrés Teotilapan and San Pedro Ixcatlá municipalities, Chinantla region, Oaxaca state