In San Miguel de Allende, Tomás, a much recognized indigenous gentleman from Papantla in Veracruz, always in his white, wide-bottomed pants, white shirt, straw hat, and colorful scarf goes from restaurant to restaurant, and daily makes his way along the rows of visitors sitting on the benches in the jardin. He holds out an array of Mexican manta cloth shirts for sale. And, sometimes, along with his big smile, he announces, “Hay vanilla, hay vanilla!” or, “I have vanilla!” Sometimes he has little plastic bottles of vanilla extract for sale at the princely sum of 80 or 120 pesos, depending on size. Other times, he has vanilla beans, and that is such a treat. They come from his homeland and are quickly bought by those who know their value.
Since the blossoms of the vanilla orchid last only one day, and where cultivated, must be hand-pollinated that very day, it is a miracle to be able to have them at all. In nature, only the Melipone bee pollinates the vanilla orchid. After fertilization, the beans take about six weeks to ripen, and they then endure a quick bath in very hot water to stop the ripening, are dried, and put out to cure in the sun for up to nine months to reach perfection. Whatever he asks for his vanilla beans, (about $2.50 USD each) they are worth it.
The Aztecs flavored hot chocolate with these richly fragrant pods, which they called tlilxochitl, or black flowers, and Cortés took this new world prize back to Spain with him, right along with gold and silver.
To make your own vanilla extract, split two vanilla beans down the center and cover them with 1/2 cup of vodka and let this sit, covered, in a glass container, for about two months. Use it the next time you make your favorite cookies, ice cream, brûlée, or puddings, and you will notice an unbelievable difference. Just keep replacing the vodka, teaspoon per teaspoon, as you use it and the beans will last a long time. Double your pleasure by chopping up a vanilla bean, putting it in a couple of cups of sugar and let that sit for six weeks or so and use in recipes or your morning coffee. No one will ever guess your secret ingredient, but it is guaranteed they will ask.
The next Comida Méxicana will be about chocolate. Did you know that in the court of Moctezuma chocolate was used as currency?