It's Not Easy Buying Beans, Even in Vanilla-Loving Oaxaca

In a search for Mexican vanilla beans, Jamila Robinson finds more of Oaxaca’s flavor.

It's hard to buy vanilla beans in Mexico.

Though the world's favorite spice is indigenous to the country and has been cultivated in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz going back to the Aztecs, finding whole beans that have not been slated for export illustrates the worldwide vanilla shortage that is now in its fifth year.

In the city of Oaxaca, with its captivating food scene and network of markets, whole vanilla beans are still absent from the stalls. Sure, you can buy dried vanilla beans, which many people purchase to make extract. But fresh beans are moist, plump, and full of seeds that can be scraped into custard and spun into ice cream, adding fragrance and power to puddings and pound cakes—you can't get those without knowing a guy, who knows a chef, who knows a woman who might be willing to sell a few.

vanilla extract
Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis

In December 2019, while taking a cooking class at Mundo Ceiba, a foundation that promotes slow food, biodiversity, and bicycling, I asked its director, chef Rubén García, for the best place to buy vanilla beans.

The extract is everywhere, he said. But the beans? He gave me a "welp" face. Oaxacans, he told me, have become accustomed to flavors that are more accessible, like lime and pomegranate, or honey, which he produces from his beekeeping hobby. García pulled a jar from behind the counter and offered me a taste. It had a zing, with floral yet citrusy notes; I imagined drizzling it onto cornbread or whipping it into gelato. I asked him for a bottle, but he was not selling his honey. I took notes.

If I wanted vanilla beans, he'd be willing to make a call to some friends. In the meantime, he suggested that my companion and I head over to Xiguela Tienda, an organic specialty store, where I might be able to buy whole beans.

Claudia Alejandre, who owns the shop and bakery-café of the same name, chuckled and shook her head when I asked her about vanilla beans. She pointed to the high-quality extract on the shelves of her small market.

"It's so expensive now," Alejandre told me. "Most of our vanilla is for export. They leave us with just the liquid."

"They" is the Mexican government, which ships 95% of the vanilla crop to other countries, with the U.S. and Europe among its largest consumers. Catastrophic weather events over the years, including cyclones in Indonesia and drought in Madagascar, have led to an increase in vanilla prices worldwide. In Mexico, prices are on par with silver, averaging about $250 a pound and causing some farmers to hire armed guards to protect their vanilla crops from theft.

Even with the coronavirus pandemic, the worldwide demand for vanilla is strong, as home cooks take on more ambitious baking projects. While prices dropped in 2020, Mexican vanilla crops were once again weakened by weather conditions, according to the Cook's Vanilla Market Report, which tracks prices.

I bought two 16-ounce bottles of extract from Alejandre without a scent check, persuaded by the label with a list of government numbers to certify its authenticity. When I opened the bottles, which were manufactured in Veracruz, smoky notes of wood, allspice, and almond rose from the cap. I imagined the spice would be good in a glaze that I could smear on cinnamon buns, or mixed into vanilla-based cocktails or rich chocolate tamales. But I still wanted whole beans, if they were available.

On our way to Centro Cultural San Pablo, a former monastery that is now a hub for concerts, arts, and culture, we stopped by Carmelita, a bakery with display cases lined with birthday cakes, flans, and breads, as well as authentic-looking French tarts and éclairs that appeared to be filled with crème anglaise.

"Do you use vanilla? Where can I find vanilla beans?" I asked.

"We flavor with extract," the clerk said, repeating what she'd probably told dozens of tourists. "You can get it anywhere." When I told her I was looking for beans, she paused, then suggested we check out El Pochote, an organic farmers market.

The next day, I took a 10-minute walk from Oaxaca's Zócalo plaza to El Pochote. There, I found a market dotted with communal tables and stalls serving Mexican, Korean, and Italian dishes, as well as tasting stations for handcrafted mezcal. The chefs cooking at these small restaurants are all part of Oaxaca's organic supply chain and share ideals of biodiversity and chemical-free farming.

But vanilla beans weren't being sold there. However, they all knew Rubén García, who called to give us the number of a woman he knew whose farming meets his high standards. She might be able to help. We made the call.

The woman had questions for us and only wanted the answers through WhatsApp. "How many beans do you want?" she typed.

Before starting this quest, I had done the math and knew I wanted to buy about a quarter kilo, or about half a pound, which is around 70 beans. That would give me at least a year's supply of beans, plus enough to give to my baker friends and family.

"I don't sell by the kilo," read the reply. My partner typed a longer reply and explained that I wanted about 70 whole beans. Five minutes passed without so much as an animated ellipsis. Then crickets. "This seems shady," he muttered in Spanish.

Knowing that vanilla supply markets are in constant disruption, and that cartels have eyed vanilla as a way to diversify revenue, we were only interested in purchases that were ethical, sustainable, and, well, legit. I was resigned to enjoy the extract, spice blends, honey, chapulines, and the other Oaxacan goodies I'd bought while traversing the city's markets.

A day later, a notification appeared on WhatsApp. The woman left a message saying she would be willing to sell me 40 whole Mexican vanilla beans at her wholesale price—about $2 USD each, a bargain. Thrilled, we were just left with logistics. I could pay her online, and we'd hire a taxi to pick up the beans.

She balked. The woman was not willing to allow us to visit her small farm to pick up the beans. She was skeptical of purchasers she doesn't know and reminded us about the fragility of the supply chain and that if we really wanted vanilla, we could just buy the extract that is always available.

But García had vouched for us.

Her final message: "I'll deliver the beans to your hotel."

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