Something I’ve always wanted to do is visit a vanilla farm, and this year that wish came true.
Vanilla is a vine orchid native to central/ south America that can produce what we call “beans”. The beans (or pods) are filled with lots of tiny seeds, which are scraped out with a knife when a recipe calls for “vanilla bean”. Today vanilla is grown in many tropical countries, including Costa Rica, a delightful country I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know recently.
By chance, I found out about a biodynamic farm called “Villa Vanilla” near Quepos, a coastal town on the pacific side of this mountainous and always green land. My interest grew even more when I learned how cocoa (the base of chocolate) is also grown on the farm, along with other spices including cassia cinnamon, chili pepper, white/ black pepper, tumeric, tulsi and more. I signed up for a tour at once. Cocoa and vanilla all in one stop? Who could resist?
Before the tour began, Henry, the owner of Villa Vanilla since the late eighties, stood in front of beds covered with dark and moist sun-drying vanilla beans and told us about the culinary history of cocoa and vanilla. He explained how the indigenous peoples of central America first cultivated vanilla and cocoa, which they mixed together with chili peppers to make a drink they held sacred. The US-born, turned-Costa-Rica- vanilla-farmer-and-expert has done a fabulous job at creating a thriving tropical plant oasis along with fabulous, informative tours.
I certainly wasn’t the only one interested in learning about vanilla and cocoa — I was joined by about 30 others on the tour, which began with an explanation of how vanilla is grown, fermented and dried. We learned how the plant only flowers about once a year – and it has to be pollinated by hand in order to produce beans since it only blooms for about a day!! It truly sounds like growing vanilla requires a watchful eye!
We then moved on to learning about the different varieties of cocoa, which is mainly grown across central and south America and Africa today. Our tour guide cut open a yellow, medium-sized cocoa pod and started to pass it around, encouraging us to try a raw cocoa bean right from the pod. I curiously slipped a soft and silky-feeling cocoa bean into my mouth; the flesh was slightly sweet and tasty, the raw bean bitter and dry. The tour guide explained how the beans are dried and fermented before being roasted and then used to make what most consider the best dessert/ snack — if not food — of all: chocolate, of course.
Moving on, we then learned about other spices grown in the tropics, as the knowledgeable guide passed a jars of spices to the group for us to smell. After exposing our senses to chili pepper, black and white pepper, cloves, allspice, tumeric, the guide then brought us back to the topic of chocolate by passing around a plate of chocolates made from the cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon and other ingredients grown right on the farm. With a ton of flavour and the perfect texture, I can say it was surely among the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted.
We then moved towards a man who was sitting in a chair carving what looked like branches. Our guide then told us that he was cutting cinnamon bark; she picked up a piece of freshly carved barked and passed it around. Sure enough, it smelt like cinnamon! We also chewed on the bark, which reminded me of a piece of cinnamon gum. Our guide then explained how most cinnamon sold in North America and Europe is actually not true cinnamon but rather cassia, a cousin plant of true cinnamon. Villa Vanilla has put together more information about the differences between true cinnamon and cassia here.
Next we were off to the outdoor part of the tour, which included looking at the many vanilla vines growing on the farm, as well as cocoa trees, pepper brushes, tumeric and tulsi plants and more. We ended the tour quite suitably with a glass of chilled pure cinnamon tea, a cheesecake prepared with real vanilla bean that was grown on the farm and yet another dessert dish filled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream atop of a homemade dark chocolate cookie. Dare I say that the desserts alone would be reason enough to recommend this tour to anyone else? Yes, but I also would never give up seeing and touching the plants while learning more about them under the tropical sun!