Posts Tagged ‘spices’

To say something or someone is vanilla is anything but a compliment, implying bland and tasteless.  However, as we learned during our tour of Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation near Manuel Antonio and Quepos, Costa Rica, real vanilla is anything but bland!

Have you ever eaten a baby?  If you’ve used real vanilla, you have.  An orchid that has to be pollinated by hand, with the flower only open once during one morning, the vanilla plant grows around other plants/trees.  Like a human baby, the seed pod, the fruit of the plant, takes nine months to develop, although unlike a baby, the vanilla pods then have to be cured for several months. (Human children are often not cured for years.)  Amanda Fortini has an interesting article for Slate that will tell you more about the (fallacious) connection between vanilla and bland.

Villa Vanilla began as a monoculture farm until a series of disasters brought vanilla production in Costa Rica to a screeching halt.  When owner/manager Henry Karczynsk began again, the farm became a model of biodiversity, what I would call large-scale companion planting.  Besides vanilla, the farm raises cinnamon, allspice, several kinds of pepper, tumeric and more, all planted together in a beautiful area.




The vanilla most of us use is either imitation vanilla or vanilla flavoring. The artificial flavors of the former come mostly from wood byproducts and often contain chemicals. Vanilla flavoring is generally a combination of imitation vanilla and pure vanilla extract. These two make up most of the vanilla on the market, one of the reasons I brought back the largest bottle of vanilla I could from Villa Vanilla. Kept away from light and at a constant temperature, my vanilla will continue to age beautifully.

Villa Vanilla also raises cacao. Cacao pods contain approximately 30-50 seeds that are sweet, somewhat soft and that look very much like the things you should avoid in a sci-fi movie. However, you can eat them and we did. I’m proud to say I was the first one to try…right after the tour guide put one in her mouth! Once harvested, the long process continues until the end product emerges as nibs or cocoa powder. Although not for sale, the dark chocolate we were able to try was fabulous, the best I’ve ever had and nothing like even the best candy bar.




Villa Vanilla raises Ceylon cinnamon, not the common cassia. Cinnamon is produced by growing the tree for two years, then coppicing it, cutting it back to the stump. (The next year, about a dozen shoots grow from the stump.) The outer bark, which can be used for tea, has to be cut off by hand. The inner bark, about 0.5 mm (0.020 in), is removed for what we know as cinnamon, in either sticks or ground. The rest of the wood is burned.


Spices drying…


The farm…



View from the farm…


A delicious cheesecake sample made with Villa Vanilla products…


Although a tour of a vanilla plantation sounds a bit…well…vanilla, it was anything but bland.  The farm is a model of the beauty of biodiversity and the spices that come from it have vibrant color and flavor.  The tour turned out to be one of our favorites.  I can’t wait to begin using the spices I bought, although I regret that I couldn’t buy any of the chocolate.  Perhaps one day…