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Pompona Vanilla Pods Have Arrived!

Vanilla pompona 01 (cropped)
vanil­la pom­pona flower

Several years 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 part of an orga­ni­za­tion called The Amazon Vanilla Project, with a pro­gram to sup­port devel­op­ing vanil­la pom­pona as a cash crop and grow­ing vanil­la in the moun­tain­ous rain­for­est 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.

cured vanil­la pom­pona pods

Pompona vanil­la was the first vanil­la to be record­ed by west­ern­ers and export­ed as a fla­vor­ing. It was grown com­mer­cial­ly, but was even­tu­al­ly sup­plant­ed by 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.

Pompona vanil­la is grow­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty these days as pro­fes­sion­al and home chefs are explor­ing the region­al dif­fer­ences between vanil­la sourced from all across the trop­ics. Culinarily, the poten­tial for pom­pona vanil­la is only now being explored out­side of its geo­graph­i­cal range. In my opin­ion, it is bet­ter suit­ed to savory dish­es, work­ing espe­cial­ly well with oth­er bold fla­vors such as smoked, grilled, and deeply caramelized foods. 

Sustainable Rainforest Agriculture

Vanilla is a for­est plant and requires a bio­log­i­cal­ly rich envi­ron­ment to grow well. It is a valu­able cash crop that does not require that the for­est be cut down, instead some under­sto­ry growth is removed and tutors (sup­port trees) are grown using appro­pri­ate local trees and the vanil­la is grown on those trees. A com­mer­cial vanil­la farm in this set­ting just looks like a for­est, but with a lot of vanil­la grow­ing in it. Vanilla does not require fer­til­iz­ers, so grow­ing it does not affect the rain­for­est ecol­o­gy. It leaves the for­est most­ly intact so it can go on doing its job of seques­ter­ing car­bon and oxy­genat­ing the atmos­phere (among oth­er things of course!).

All aspects of vanil­la cul­ti­va­tion and cur­ing are done by hand. This means that vanil­la cul­ti­va­tion fits into the lifestyle of the local peo­ple. Instead of dis­rupt­ing their soci­etal struc­ture and cul­ture, it fits into it while pro­vid­ing the need­ed cash income.

What is Pompona Vanilla Like?

The pack­age of pom­pona vanil­la beans con­tained an amaz­ing boun­ty of the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly large beans. Each one weighs about 14 grams: com­pare that to our own Grade A beans at about 9 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. Pompona vanil­la is high in heliotropin, which has long been used in the per­fumery trade, but it is also an impor­tant fla­vor­ing for foods, and is rem­i­nis­cent of cher­ries, cin­na­mon and, of course, vanilla.

I am offer­ing pom­pona vanil­la for sale in my online shop, so you could have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make use of this unique and intrigu­ing fla­vor and scent.

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