Deep in the moisl tropics, white-clad Tolonac Indians reap a bountiful harvest of By Dorothy V/eeks Photography by Lowell Weeks rf""YMBIDlUM souffle or catlleya cupcakes? You ^^ haven't culcn these? Neither have we, and before the members of the Long Beach Amateur Orchid Society step tip to boil us in oil for our orchidaceous pioposal, we'll take a giant step in the other direction and declare our edible orchid is V. Plani- folia, and its slender green pod is vanilla. So we land in the safety zone with a story about a flavoring, and that it is a flavoring was all we knew when we poked our noses into the land of tamnles and tequila. In 1519 when Hernan Corlcs began his conquest of Mexico, one of [he secrets he wrung from the ill starred Indians with their glittering cities, pyramidal temples, and mountains of gold and silver, was t h e i r unrivaled knowledge of vanilla. XANATII (Shanath) they called it. Their favorite beverage, chocolate, whipped to a feathery foam, was generously laced with vanilla. At Cortes' orders, cuttings of the singular vine were sent to Spain, and from there introduced into other countries. Rut the great republic of Mexico is the vanilla capital of the world, and the Totonacs who cultivate the vines, are Mexico's most prosperous Indian tribe. They live in the villages of Papantla and Gutierrez. Zamora in Vera Cruz state. These communities are headquarters for the growing and distribution of this sweet smelling harvest of the orchid family. In the surrounding rainforests, where the vanilla first grew wild, the Totonacs hand-pollinate the wpxy white flowers when they appear on the vines in early spring. After pollination the beans slowly grow during the moist, tropical summer, sheltered and shaded from the jungle sun. In November the pods are gathered and the curing procedure begins. Subjected to a three day roasting in ovens fired with wood, the beans are then treated to a stearn- bath. The sun-curing cycle is then undertaken. Each morning thousands of ripening pods are carefully placed in the sun. At noon, each day, they are carried inside the compound to rest on special air- circulating racks. THE NEXT MORNING they are again placed in the sun, and on and on, a daily ritual. After six months of this tender care, the rich chocolate- hrown beans, mellowed by time, arc sorted and bound in packets, ready for market. It is during this phase in the career of the beans that the aroma of vanilla perfumes the villages for miles around with a heady fragrance. Some beans are used for liqueur, some for extract, and some reach their destination as sticky, luscious, whole brown beans. Inspired by personal contact with the Midas vine of the Indians, we learned to use the pod in the original form as they do, and since the extract is made by distillation, we had to experiment in a less complicated way, and thereby came up with an infusion of Southern Comfort and the mellow beans. As a result, we present a bold front for the most impudent vanilla north of the border. When our bottle is getting low, fresh liquid is added, more cut beans poked in, cap screwed on, and the fertile union continues. IF YOU ALSO WISH to be a mad chemist, the method is simple. No finesse is needed. Just singleness of purpose plus the ingredients. Since you can't fly to Papantla just for beans (or can you?), buy them at La I.uz del Dia, G10 N. Spring St., Los Angeles, a Mexican grocery store around the corner from Olvera St. The next step is a bottle of Southern Comfort. Pour out some of the liquid, put in the beans (cut in two-inch bits), and wait for your reward. Now that you have the flavor of our story, we have a feeling you'll be impressed with your puddings, cakes, candies, and ice creams crowned with V. Planifolia, and as we do, you'll remember that this universal flavoring is a rapturous blend of the rain forest, the jungle sun, the white clad Totonac Indian, and an emerald green vine laden with edible orchids. Vanilla beans, edible fruit of an orchid, are sorted for marketing. Mexico is vanilla-producing capital of world. Daily sun bath is part of curing process for vanilla beans, which are ' brought in'at noon each'day and'stacked ia these air-circulating racks. Economy of Totonac Indians depends on vanilla production. Abo^e, lolonac family of Papantla: (i-r) mother, father, daughter and new sori-in-laV.
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