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The process of transforming vanilla was invented over 2000 years ago by the Totonac people. They used it in cooking, religious rituals, and trade with the Aztecs. For nearly a century, the Totonac nation was the only one that knew the secrets of this precious spice and could sell it to the first Europeans, who were eager for exotic products from the New World.

For decades, hundreds of botanists tried to uncover the secret of vanilla flower fertilization to produce its fragrant fruit. Some even believed the plant was bewitched by Totonac priests in retaliation for their land being taken. It wasn’t until a 13-year-old slave named Edmond Albius, working in the gardens of a wealthy owner on Reunion Island, discovered the secret and successfully performed manual pollination. This breakthrough led to the intensive cultivation of the spice in colonies, causing Mexico to lose its market entirely.

After nearly 500 years of being deprived of their ability to commercialize the fruit of their labor, destiny has restored pride to the Totonac nation. A powerful association of Totonac vanilla producers has emerged: the State Council of Vanilla Producers of Veracruz.

The Story of Totonac Vanilla Farmers' Emancipation
Told by Chantale Caron, Owner of Colibri Vanilla

What struck me the most when I met Don Crispin was the immense respect and reverence everyone showed him in my presence. It was intriguing that a humble farmer was addressed as "Don" by everyone. He is modest, lively, and possesses remarkable physical and intellectual vigor. A proud Totonac, he has spent nearly seventy years working with vanilla. When he tells his story, filled with laughter and sparkling eyes, everyone listens and laughs with him, knowing his stories by heart.

This man has faced and overcome all the hardships of a ruthless world for farmers and especially indigenous people, without fear and without faltering, despite constant threats to his life and his family's. His goal was greater than himself: more than a thousand indigenous vanilla farming families, all owners of their fincas, now benefit from the emancipation efforts through this powerful association that sets the regional vanilla prices. He recounted that before they had access to the true purchase prices from consumer countries (thanks to the internet), local collectors bought green vanilla (before processing) for 3 pesos per kilo and reserved the transformation (rightly called "beneficio" in Mexico) for themselves to earn a higher profit margin.

Rich owners of exporting companies even mocked him in local newspapers this year, saying, "The industry is so moribund that now an Indian sets the vanilla prices." If I may, I believe it is their business practices that are moribund because Don Crispin's association is thriving!

Thanks to him, consumers in Quebec and Canada can access exceptional quality vanilla, as fair as possible, free from any chemical additives, and finally at a reasonable price because it is not taxed by local collectors.

Don Crispin et la natte de séchage

Here, Don Crispin explains the use of mats in the vanilla transformation process.