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.