By Susan Belsinger
(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)
Vanilla in the Rainforest
Before going to Costa Rica, I researched gardens, restaurants, herbs, spices, botanicals and the rainforest—places where I wanted to go, see, and experience. Once I visited Villa Vanilla’s website, https://www.rainforestspices.com/, I knew that I had to go there. I made reservations for the farm tour in advance. It was one of my favorite things in Costa Rica—I loved seeing the tropical spice plants up close and personal—and I got to smell and taste so many things, which was a memorable sensory experience!
During the half day Spice Plantation Tour, visitors experience the sights, tastes, and aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, and other tropical spices, essential oil plants, and a wide variety of tropical ornamental plants. The tour begins and ends at the post-harvest warehouse, where my eyes feasted on the spectacle of the ground covered with burlap sacks, which were spread with vanilla beans in various stages of fermentation and curing, and my nose filled with the delightfully overwhelming perfume of vanilla.
Vanilla is the main crop that is cultivated on this farm, with Ceylon cinnamon as a secondary crop. However, they also cultivate cacao, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, chiles, turmeric, cardamom, ginger (mostly ornamental), and a large number of epiphytes.
On our tour, we sampled delicious treats made by the chef, who used the farm’s spices to titillate our taste buds. To cool off, we first had a glass of chilled hibiscus infusion while gazing out at the tropical paradise. The next sample was a lovely, smooth vanilla bean custard, not too sweet, with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. We were served a demitasse of hot chocolate flavored with a hint of cinnamon and chile accompanied by a crunchy, vanilla shortbread cookie speckled with cacao nibs. And the grand finale was a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream made with farm fresh milk and cream from the farm’s own dairy cow.
After visiting the Spice Shoppe, we walked back to the small warehouse where we were able to view different spices in various stages of drying. Our guide described and showed us some of the processes of harvesting and processing both vanilla and cacao pods, and we saw Ceylon cinnamon being barked.
We learned about the process of the vanilla bean from harvest to cured, saleable bean. Once the plant has produced the green pods, they swell as they mature. When they are ready to harvest, they pull off easily from the stem. Green pods are placed in a large, clear plastic bag, which begins the fermentation process. Then they are laid outdoors in the sun every morning for four hours. Next, they are placed in insulated boxes while they are still warm from the sun and brought inside the warehouse for twenty hours. This is repeated every day for about three to four days. This process of sweating the beans in the sun makes a superior fermented end-product. (In other parts of the world, green beans are dropped in boiling water rather than curing in the sun.) After a week, the pods have turned brown, and they are removed from the plastic bags and spread out on burlap sacks. The four hours of sun/twenty hours in the dark process is continued for another three to four weeks until the pods have begun to shrivel and have lost about 80% of their original weight. Then they are left to cure—and this time varies among farmers—from nine months to two years. Villa Vanilla cures their beans for two years for best flavor and quality.
After curing, the beans are graded and separated according to size—there are about four sizes from thin to medium to large and extra-large. An extra-large bean is something to behold indeed! They are magnificent, thick and plump and slightly moist, bursting with the mouthwatering and intoxicating, inimitable scent of vanilla.
Vanilla’s Aromatic Pedigree
The vanilla plant is a tropical vine that can reach a length of over one hundred feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants—the orchids (Orchidaceae)—currently known to contain more than twenty-five thousand species and counting. Of all the orchids, the Vanilla genus is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop separate from the rare, hothouse exotic orchids cultivated and traded for their beautiful, colorful flowers. The vanilla orchid has its own appeal: a fruit with a scent so unique, so distinctive to the human palate that it was once worth its weight in silver.
The vanilla orchid’s flower is not showy; it has only a slight scent with no element of vanilla flavor or aroma. When its pale-yellow flowers are pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into the fruits we call “pods” or “beans,” just like extra-long green beans. Pollination in the wild is very iffy, so most growers hand pollinate to ensure a viable crop. This is very labor intensive and has to be done when the flower is just open, which is a very brief window of time–literally a few hours on a single day. Each pod contains tens of thousands of tiny black seeds. The growing process lasts up to nine months, but only when the pods turn brown after being dried and cured do they develop the distinctive aroma we call “vanilla.” Drying, curing, and conditioning the pods is an art, which, if done properly, takes at least another nine months. Understandably, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive agricultural products in the world.
There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid, and they grow all over the tropics with the exception of Australia. All of the vanilla orchids produce fruits containing seeds, but only a few species bear the large aromatic pods that can be used commercially. Virtually all of the cultivated vanilla in the world today comes from just one species, Vanilla planifolia (sometimes called Vanilla fragrans), a plant indigenous to Central America, and particularly the south-eastern part of Mexico. At least two other species, V. pompona and V. tahitensis, also provide a serviceable culinary pod, although they are not as readily obtainable, and they produce a different flavor and aroma to the V. planifolia.
Stay tuned for Vanilla Part II, including recipes from Susan, coming 8 March, 2021!
Photo Credits: 1) Villa Vanilla poster; 2) Drying vanilla beans on burlap sacks; 3) Vanilla custard; 4) Green, unripe vanilla pods; 5) Dried vanilla pods; 6) Vanilla flowers; 7) Vanilla vine. All photos courtesy of the author, except 6) (Pixaby).
Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.
Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com.