The term vanilla is often used to describe something that is bland, or at least safe, and, well, pedestrian. The connotation is unfortunate, and more to the point, incorrect, because the story of vanilla—from its source to its history to the process that takes it from seed to sauce—is actually quite exotic.
Vanilla originated in Veracruz, Mexico, where it was cultivated by the Totonac Indians. Its production remained solely in Mexico until the mid-1800s when conquistadors, colonization and forced “globalization” led to the spread, exchange and export of the unassuming bean. Today, despite vanilla’s global travels and popularity, it’s still grown primarily in just four places: Mexico, Madagascar, Indonesia and Tahiti.
Mexican vanilla comprises a very small share of the global market, the vast majority coming from Madagascar, and the Gaya brand is the only certified organic vanilla available from Mexico.
“Vanilla is the bean of a climbing orchid,” explains Monica Peraza, owner of Gaya-vanilla importer Dalma Imports. “It’s very rare—it has to grow in special temperatures and be pollinated by hand. It’s a huge task. That’s why it’s not grown in many places.”
The Gaya family first started farming vanilla in 1873—growing the orchids, harvesting the beans, drying them and making the extract. They’ve been exporting to the U.S. since 1940. Now, three generations later, San Antonian Norma Gaya spends a good deal of her time in Mexico overseeing the company and working with 500 vanilla-growing families whose fragile crop supplements Gaya’s production.
Though some aspects of the business have evolved—climate-controlled storage environments, for example—the curing process is still done in very much the same way as it was over a hundred years ago. This generations-old technique ensures that the beans retain essential oils and stay pliable, preserving their rich, complex flavor, and that the extract is pure and free of the chemical coumarin—a known carcinogen found in vanilla substitutes.
"I've been using [Gaya vanilla] for a couple of years now,” says Chef Johnny Hernandez of True Flavors Catering and MesAlegre at the Pearl Farmers Market in San Antonio. “[The Gaya family] still produces vanilla the old way—it's laid out to dry in the sun and brought in daily for weeks or months until they're happy with the quality and the flavor.”
Hernandez says he uses vanilla in desserts, but also in savory dishes. “I like it in braised dishes—the aroma is intense. We've done warm vinaigrettes over seafood, and used it for cocktails. When you start using it you get comfortable with it and find applications you hadn't thought of. Most people look at it and think it's for baking, but I think it's underutilized."
Find the Gaya family's organic vanilla and pure vanilla extract at Melissa Guerra in the Full Goods Building at The Historic Pearl Brewery, 200 East Grayson, San Antonio (210-293-3983 and melissaguerra.com) and online at vanillamexico.com.