The Long, Lost Wild Vanilla of Bolivia

This is Part VIII of New Worlder’s first series: Food & The Amazon Rainforest, which explores the relationships and possibilities surrounding food in one of the most diverse and vulnerable ecosystems on Earth.

Kamilla Seidler, the Danish born chef of Gustu in La Paz had heard of native Bolivian vanilla since she arrived in the country in 2012. One of Gustu’s sous chefs, Kenzo Hirose, who grew up in a jungle village on the Rio Beni, had seen it before but was unable to come across it once he started to work at the restaurant. Everyone kept saying it was as big as a banana. It was a myth Seidler thought. El Dorado would have been easier to find.

Grupo Gustu, founded by Danish food impresario and Noma co-founder Claus Meyer’s Melting Pot Foundation, has been helping develop sustainable food projects around Bolivia for five years now. They have opened a dozen small cafeterias and cooking schools in impoverished neighborhoods, created a logistics network to facilitate the transport of products, and have empowered artisanal producers who had no means of reaching the market. One of their more interesting projects involves a group of Tacana caiman hunters, managed on a quota system with the Wildlife Conservation Society, that sells their tail meat to Gustu and the skins to Gucci.

Last year, while meeting with a group of Quechua-Tacana producers at Chalalan lodge, run by the indigenous community of San Jose de Uchupiamonas within the 1.89 million hectare Madidi National Park, Seidler was seeking out new ingredients that could be developed and used at Gustu and other restaurants in La Paz. A surazo, a rare cold front, blew down from the high Andes and across region, and the typically sweltering hot jungle was cold. The men and women from these loose cooperatives of indigenous families within the park showcased what they had grown. There was majo and cusí, both palm fruits, which could be pressed into a form of milk or oil. Other producers had wild cacao, camu camu, açaí, and Brazil nuts, which are called that on the international market even though Bolivia has greater production.

There was one indigenous man there trying to sell honey from melipona bees, which is the natural pollinator of the vanilla orchid. Seidler mentioned how long she had been looking for this giant Amazonian vanilla. The man had seen this giant vanilla around, but didn’t think much of it and wasn’t sure where some was at. A guide from Chalalan happened to over hear the conversation and a few hours later brought back a few pods that were growing on a trail not far away. Everyone in the room, which included a few conservationists and other chefs, were shocked that it actually existed. Everyone’s iPhone came out for a photo. They were enormous, bigger than bananas. One was cracked open and it was as rich and fragrant as any vanilla I’ve ever smelled, be it from Réunion Island or Veracruz.

It didn’t seem to be V. pompon, the species of vanilla sometimes cultivated in the Caribbean and the northern reaches of South America, or one of the dozens of varieties in Brazil. The size of this vanilla would lead you to believe it is its own species. Maybe it was traded down along through Central America and along the east side of the Andes thousands of years ago and mutated in Madidi’s diverse climate? Or maybe it just has always been there growing and, outside of the indigenous that live there, no one knew it existed.

Bolivia is South America’s lost world. Closed off by mountains and jungle, the country has seen little development in rural areas. Many indigenous groups in the Andes and Amazon still live like they did centuries ago. Biodiversity here is unreal. On entering Madidi, the Río Beni goes through a mountain pass where steep, misty jungle-clad slopes rise out of river banks hundreds of meters on each side. It’s like entering through a gate from the industrialized world and into another realm. The WCS has catalogued more plant and animal species here than any other national park in the world. What is edible, identified by native guides, and could be developed into a sustainable product for the 31 campesino and indigenous communities living there has only begun to be explored. It could happen at a better time. The Bolivian government, despite having been historically friendly to environmental causes, is suddenly pushing to open its protected areas to multinational oil and gas firms.

Seidler brought as much of the vanilla back to Gustu as could be found, which wasn’t much. She made vanilla vodka and other infusions to get the most out of the little bit she has. She’s still experimenting with it. There’s still not enough of this Madidi vanilla to go around, though the interest is there and the communities are aware. The first real harvest will be in March and it’s only a matter of time before a small, sustainable vanilla industry develops.