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Pompona Vanilla from Peru

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.

The beans are huge and meaty

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.

9 thoughts on “Pompona Vanilla from Peru

  1. 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..

  2. 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?

    Thanks

    1. 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.

      1. Hi Roland,
        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.
        Thank you.

        1. Hi Remie,

          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.

  3. Hello Roland,

    I have a few questions:

    Are you grow­ing pompona?
    Who is?
    Do you know of com­mer­cial pom­pona plantations?
    Is any­one export­ing pom­pona to the US?
    From where?

    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. 

    Dawn

    1. Hi Dawn,

      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!

  4. 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

    1. Hi Ruthie,

      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.

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