There are so many delicious flavors found around the world and each taste reminds me of how interdependent we are for our pleasures of the table. I have great respect for the farmer, the harvester, the processor, which is not a dirty word but does require the dirty work of cleaning, drying, milling, and packing all done before it arrives in our kitchen.
The first vanilla orchid vine I saw grew in a conservatory in Longwood Botanical Gardens in Pennsylvania. It was flowering, and the soft yellow blossom was beautiful. I was thrilled to see it. But one bloom does not make a bottle of extract. If you are doing any baking these days, you likely are reaching for vanilla extract, and you may be shocked at the $10 price tag for 2 ounces. Prices rise due to consumers demanding natural flavorings and harsh weather in the vanilla growing regions. Growing regions that don’t include the USA.
I love vanilla. I use vanilla beans and extracts. It is one of those products I found in the grocery and beyond that gave it very little thought. So, when I began exploring the gardens of Mexico, my education and appreciation for this flavor significantly increased. The Porte Vallarta Botanical garden beautiful in so many ways provides an excellent orientation to growing vanilla.
Growing conditions are tropical, warm, moist, and filtered shade. The vines grow up to 25′ reaching for the light, but farming vanilla beans requires it to be kept to a maximum height of 8′ so the beans can be harvested. The vine needs support structure to grow. In the wild, it climbs up a tree, but in a vanilla plantation, it is attached to a wooden stake.
The most demanding aspect of growing vanilla is pollination. Mexican vanilla grown in the wild was originally naturally pollinated by the Melipona bee, which today is nearly extinct. This missing pollinator is a specific example of how species extinction is a critical reality. Today almost all vanilla must be pollinated by hand within the approximately four-hour bloom window.
The vines bloom continuously for several weeks. Vanilla Orchid flowers are hermaphroditic, meaning they contain both male and female parts. The male stamen must pierce the female stigma, which is covered by a shield and has to be lifted to place the pollen on the stigma. After pollination, the shield must be folded back into place. Each flower, each day for weeks, must be pollinated by skilled hands.
Then the blossoms begin to produce the bean, and the beans require six months to form. The vanilla bean on the vine looks like a big fat green bean. All the beans must be handpicked. Vanilla and Saffron are the most labor-intensive agriculture products in our cupboards. Once picked, the curing process begins. First, they are immersed in boiling water and then spread out to dry during the day. Each night the beans are wrapped in blankets to sweat inside curing sheds. During the curing period, they are checked frequently for potential mold. This process transforms the green beans into the shriveled, mahogany pencil size we find for sale at the local grocery. While Madagascar is known as the Vanilla capital, vanilla grows in many tropical regions, including Mexico, Madagascar, Indonesia, Tahiti, and Tonga.
All this effort during a months-long growing season illustrates the complexity in growing one of our favorite flavors.
Vanilla is widely known, but Pitayas may be just the opposite.
It was the season of Pitayas on the Baja Peninsula when I visited in mid-December. A roadside stand was doing brisk business as our guide pulled over to give us a taste of this popular cactus fruit.
A young man was expertly removing the sharp spines from the fruit holding it barehanded removing the spines with a pair of plastic tongs. He worked quickly, prepping the fruit for sale. Once the spines were removed, he sliced the skin by quarters and pulled it back, offering me the fruit.
I accepted it and cautiously took a bite. The flavor was bright, tart, similar to raspberry, and oh so juicy! The tiny black crunchy seeds made me think of a kiwi, but the texture was much airier; it was not at all dense. All this flavor came from these fierce-looking cactus fruits.
Nieve from Pitayas is an icy sorbet, and any sorbet is a treat for me. This one was delicious. The season of the fruit is brief, only available a few weeks each year. They grow wild in the desert and are there for the picking IF YOU DARE! This one was an intense fuchsia pink, and it also grows orange and white fruits. My research links them to the stenocereus gummosus or Galloping Cactus, a shorter version of an organ pipe cactus. Since I returned home, I have been looking for it, but I don’t find it growing in my neighborhood. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to gather the fruits and remove the spines!
It was hard to imagine something delicious would be found inside these prickly cactus fruits. I wonder who first tried to eat this? Surely the birds and the javelina recognize these would be flavorful treats, and perhaps someone saw them eating them and decided to try it years ago, setting off this seasonal delight appreciated by those in the know.
Plants are the Earth’s great resource sustaining life for humans and animals. There are still so many flavors to discover in this world. This one was a treat! From familiar and precious vanilla to the spikey pitaya, farmers and gardeners are making the world a tasty adventure.