A couple of months ago, I received an email from a a fellow vanilla grower in Peru named Ashley Britton. We have been exchanging knowledge and experiences since then, and it has expanded my thinking about what vanilla is and how it can be grown.
Ashley is growing vanilla in the mountainous rain forest region of San Martín in Northern Peru. In that area, the vanilla orchid that is found growing wild is vanilla pompona, a species of vanilla that ranges from southern Mexico through northern South America. That represents roughly the same range as vanilla planifolia, the main species for agriculture, which we grow here on Kauai. San Martín is known for its orchids, and they are featured in the tourism of the area as well as providing a local agricultural product.
Pompona vanilla was the first vanilla to be recorded by westerners and exported as a flavoring. It was grown commercially, but was eventually supplanted with vanilla planifolia because the latter got better yields in a plantation setting. Pompona vanilla remains a widely used flavoring in the regions where it grows naturally: Peru and parts of southern Mexico. These days, it is almost completely unknown outside of these areas.
Helping the Awajún
Ashley is exploring the possibility that pompona vanilla could be a good cash crop for the indigenous Awajún people, who live in the region. They had been bringing in currency with cacao, but they recently suffered a setback with this crop due to their cacao getting rejected for too high a cadmium content (the cadmium is present in trace amounts in the soil, and cacao tends to concentrate it in its seeds).
Pompona vanilla can be wildcrafted, and so it presents an opportunity to engage in a sustainable form of low-impact agriculture. Even cultivated vanilla tends to take up little space, tolerant of shade (so you don’t have to cut down lots of trees to plant it), and does not deplete soil fertility.
There are several obstacles to developing pompona vanilla as a agricultural export, but I think the first step will be in introducing its distinctive flavor and aroma to the boutique vanilla market. Once that happens, an appreciation of it will create a demand.
There is also the possibility of exploiting the use of pure vanillin crystals, of which pompona is a good source, for use in perfumery and medicinal products.
Ashley has set up a Kickstarter for the Vanilla Pompona Project, it is about to expire, but on that page you can get a good idea of what he is planning there. There is also the Vanilla Pompona website with more pictures and info, and eventually online sales.
What is Pompona Vanilla Like?
I received my package of pompona vanilla yesterday, and it is truly amazing. When I opened the package, the beans were unexpectedly large and fat. Each one weighs about 15 grams: compare that to our own beans at about 5 grams each! They have the familiar shiny, black (very dark brown) wrinkly surface, and have the same dried-fruit suppleness of a well-cured vanilla bean.
The fragrance is certainly like vanilla, but it has its own characteristics: smoky, sweet notes along with the familiar mellowing fragrance that makes vanilla special. I will have more to report on this later, I plan to make an extract and try the beans in my own cooking to see what it’s like in that context.
I am offering pompona vanilla for sale in my online shop, so you’ll have an opportunity to try it for yourself. It seems like it could be the wild, untamed ancestor to the vanilla we are so familiar with.
11 thoughts on “Pompona Vanilla from Peru”
Remarkable Roland. I had no idea there was more than one kind of vanilla. I look forward to trying it out. I don’t bake as much as I once did but it might be worth making the same dessert with each.
Many mahalos for allowing me to see your gardens yesterday. I’m so glad I hit the pick up button by mistake and got to see your environs and my old neighborhood, the first one we lived in when arriving here 33 years ago..
Hi Roland! I assume your extract is already done or please let me know when you make it, the following:
How similar or comparable to planifolia extract Is it pompona extract in your desserts or cake?
Hi Javier, I didn’t make an extract from the Pompona, so I can’t tell you how it worked. People just wanted to buy the beans, so I never got around to it.
There is certainly a difference in the fragrance, and it’s commonly reported that the flavor is not as strong as planifolia.
I intend to buy another batch of beans and this time for sure I’ll make an extract and test it.
I have been quietly following your step by step and easy to follow instructions on how to cure Vanilla. It has been very helpful to my group of Vanilla farmers in Papua New Guinea. We have adapted your methods in processing our Vanilla beans.
The group would like to seek more information on Vanilla and if possible how we can we be assisted to export our cured vanilla beans?
Most of our farmers are illiterate and come from isolated villages in Papua New Guinea.
I’m interested to hear about your vanlla growing in Papua New Guinea. That part of the world is gaining a reputation for being an excellent source of vanilla.
I’m sorry, I don’t have any specific help to offer for your desire to find an export market for your beans. There are several large international vanilla vendors offering vanilla from your country, so there must also be good buyers or brokers your group can work with to sell their beans. Since exporting agricultural poducts can be complicated, it’s the most practical way to sell your beans.
If you don’t mind, I would love to hear more about your vanilla: what kind of vanilla do you grow, what region are you in, etc.
I have a few questions:
Are you growing pompona?
Do you know of commercial pompona plantations?
Is anyone exporting pompona to the US?
You mention a fellow, Ashley, in Peru. Can you put me in touch with him?
I’m super interested, vanilla (of all species) is my favorite plant. I have a couple hundred plants, here in Belize, but just a couple are pompona.
Thank you very, very much for your sharing your knowledge in this way.
Well, this article is pretty old, and by now I have had no communication with our Pompona connection in Peru for over 2 years. There is a website, I believe, but it’s been long time since I visited. The company is called Sekut Vanilla.
I’ve tried to find an exporter for Pompona, but so far without luck. It seems to be the kind of thing you might be able to arrange if you were in country.
I am not growing it currently, although I have a cutting I’m hoping will grow. You’re growing it…how is it doing? I am wondering why you’re asking about other growers, are you seeking information on how to cultivate or cure it?
I think it unlikely it will ever be anything more than a curiosity, I think it’s use in cuisine would be pretty limited, although I’ve heard it’s sometimes used as a fragrance for pipe tobacco. Not exactly a huge market for that. The pods sold OK on my site here, so I’d like to keep carrying it. I haven’t found any other sources for the pods.
Thanks for your question, I’m always interested to learn more about these fascinating plants!
Hi Roland, vanilla newbie here. I have what I have now identified as a pompona vanilla. She gave me 8 beans this year. And as per your instructions I put them in the freezer. But am curious how the curing process is different than other vanilla beans (I read your other articles)… also. I live in Florida. So if you ever need a cutting I am more than happy to give you
Wow, that is amazing! I don’t have specific knowledge on how to cure Pompona, I’ve never done it myself. I would suggest you use the same method for Planifolia beans: you will need a sweatbox, a way to keep the beans warm and moist during the sweat and vanillin conversion. I’ve described this in my article on curing vanilla. Once you have the sweatbox setup, prepare a large pot of hot 150ºF water. Place the frozen beans in the water for a few minutes. You really only want to get the beans hot, you can tell by taking a bean out and carefully touching it…if it’s hot enough to burn, you should be good. Place the drained and still hot beans in a plastic ziplock bag (write the date on the bag) and into the sweat box. After a couple of days in the sweat, begin to slowly dry the curing beans by taking them out of the sweatbox and the plastic bag and into a 115ºF food dehydrator for an hour. If you are in a dry location, you could also do this in the open air in a location with good ventilation.
Now, the tricky part is going to be how long to keep sweating them. I don’t know what to tell you there, but my guess is it will be probably 3 weeks. As you take the beans out for their daily drying session, smell them, and you will notice a slow change in the smell. You can make a judgement call on how they are progressing based on the smell. Also, if the beans get pretty dry and firm, you may want to just move on to the drying phase since there’s no point in continuing the sweat on beans that no longer have a lot of moisture inside.
Drying the beans should continue until they are firm, but still pliable. Store them in an airtight container so they don’t dry out further.
I am very interested in getting a cutting from you, I have been trying to source Pompona cuttings for years. Email me at [email protected] so we can work out the details, I’m happy to pay you for this.
Hello again, Roland. Along with a great crop of v. planifolia beans this year, my 3 year old v.pompona is abundant with racemes and successfully pollinated beans. Any thoughts as to the sweat and curing process of these fat, large beans, or should I just follow the same process I have done over the last few years for my v.planifolia beans.
I have never cured pompona pods, so I can’t speak from experience. I have had correspondance with the pompona grower in Peru, and I believe the process is generally the same because I did adivse them at one point on how to cure the pods based on my experience curing planifolia pods. I have purchased pods from them, and the qulaity is excellent, so they must be doing something right! I assume the chemistry of the curing process is similar, so in principle a similar process should yield similar results.
Probably it will take longer because of the larger size…this would apply to the “kill” as well…3 minutes at 150°F might not be enough, maybe it should be 3 1/2 minutes. After the sweat (should be the same as I have described on this site), the drying process will take a while, so you may want to use a dehydrator (on the lowest temp setting) to complete the drying process.