As we stroll across the lush lawns of the Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation, just 10 miles east of Manuel Antonio, we see various spices hanging out to dry and we inhale the heady aromas of vanilla, cinnamon and cocoa. Aaahhh.
Our lovely local guide leads us into the weathered old wooden house where she presents us with a jar of fragrant brown sticks and begins to tell us about… vanilla beans. Yes, that’s right, vanilla beans. And then cocoa, cinnamon, all spice, and more… Foodies, read on. Everyone else, perhaps you’d prefer to take a look at our pictures of monkeys.
“The vanilla bean flower…” she tells us, as she passes one around to our small group of seven. “… only opens one time.” Who knew?! “That’s it! And we only get one vanilla bean per flower!” Wow!
“But each plant might have 100 flowers per plant,” she continues. “We have to pollinate the flowers by hand.” Mi dios! “They get just 9-10 months on the plant to mature and then we have to harvest them. If we have early flowers… then we have to mark them to keep track of them…” Vanilla production seems to be all about precision timing.
The vanilla flowers begin as delicate tiny green flowers that change to white and then over nine months grow into long dark beans. Next, they sweat them, then they dry them out, but they don’t break them open yet… they need to age them. Our guide shows us how they cut the vanilla bean open and scrape it to remove what they call ‘vanilla caviar’.
The beans we are shown are six years old. Vanilla, it seems, is like a good red wine – the more mature it is, the better it tastes, so they store the whole bean in a sealed box in a dark room. The whole process takes a year, which is why vanilla beans are expensive. The one she’s holding would cost about US$5. The vanilla beans will last forever (about 40 years, she assures us) in a glass, airtight container in a dark cupboard that gets no light. They will get sweeter as they get older. However, if you open the container every day, they will quickly lose their aroma and flavour.
“You can use vanilla like a bay leaf in cooking or use vanilla essence,” she says “In Costa Rica we prefer to use whole vanilla beans – it’s great in coffee with sugar!”
Next, we’re introduced to cocao or cocoa. Surprisingly to all of us, the fruit looks like a cross between a squash and a papaya. The cocoa inside is surrounded by a white flesh, which, we discover after tasting some, is actually quite delicious, a little like a more textured lychee.
The cocoa is removed from the fruit, dried out, roasted like coffee, and then crushed on a giant stone mortar and pestle. We’re given some of this pure cocoa to try and while the texture is coarse and not exactly pleasant, the flavour is like a rough and raw cooking chocolate. I can see that Terence’s eyes have lit up.
We meet black and white peppercorns next; then ‘All Spice’ which we actually learn is Jamaican pepper, not a spice at all; turmeric, which we’re told is good for the skin, the memory, and warding off Altzheimers; Mexican oregano, which is spicier than the Mediterranean version; the plants of the cayenne chile pepper; and, the most fascinating of all, cinnamon.
The whole time our guide has been speaking to us, a man has been sitting on a stool in a corner scraping large pieces of bark from an enormous woodpile. It turns out he is removing the inner-bark which is where the cinnamon sticks come from. He uses a knife to shave the bark into chips, which are then dried to form the cinnamon sticks we buy in the store.
Now we’ve become acquainted with all the spices in their dried and raw forms, we head off for a stroll through the plantation to see where and how everything is grown. First, we are shown an impressive looking compost heap onto which all of the discarded bits of plants and wood chips are thrown to create an organic fertilizer. Everything here is organic and natural.
As we wander through the lush vegetation that is more like a wild jungle garden than the ordered plantations we’re familiar with, we’re introduced to the trees and plants that produce the spices we use in our kitchens each day.
We meet the cocoa tree, and are told how it takes six months from flower to fruit and is harvested all year; the tiny cayenne peppers and the larger habanero peppers; the vanilla beans, the flowers of which we learn are a kind of orchid; the tall skinny cinnamon tree; the turmeric plant with its colossal green leaves that sprout from the ground with an unusual flower at its centre; along with mint, ginger, ‘All Spice’, and the pepper plants. It’s a fascinating stroll.
Our amble takes us to a breezy wooden house dramatically sited on the edge of a verdant tropical valley. It’s time for a tasting, it seems! As we gaze at the gorgeous vistas we try cinnamon iced tea, a mango cheesecake made with tamarind, a chocolate pepper cookie and icecream, and an Olmec hot chocolate drink. It’s all delicious!
Our tour ends at the plantation shop, and while there’s no pressure to buy, the participants are snapping up an assortment of spices, straight from the source. Henry, the owner of Villa Vanilla, arrives to find out how we enjoyed our walk.
Henry, it turns out, is an American expat who has been here for 33 years. He was in Central America with the Peace Corps and working with NGOs before he decided to buy some land and start the spice farm. He proudly reveals that it was the first eco-certified farm in Central America.
“We want people to really appreciate the plants,” Henry says. “This plantation was a degraded cattle farm when we took over and we started using traditional plantation methods, but, like everyone else, it crashed. So we decided to go against the grain. We’re employing bio-dynamic techniques here, following the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, one of the first advocates of sustainable farming.”
Henry is passionate about organic produce and sustainable farming. He believes crops are affected by the earth’s rotation, and the movement of the sun and moon, something we’ve heard from other farmers and winemakers on this trip.
On our stroll back to the house, Henry stops at a vanilla plant to show us the vanilla nodes and how the male and female nodes are separated. “Everything happens at the nodes,” he says. “The female opens only for a short time in the morning and during that time she must be pollinated otherwise the flower will drop off. It took us 150 years to realise this. The Aztecs knew this, but they didn’t tell the Spanish – another form of Moctezuma’s Revenge!”
As we’re about to leave, Terence asks Henry if they happen to have any of that coarse chocolate lying around… as they stroll to the house, Henry tells him that many people search their whole lives for ‘that thing’ that they really want to do – Henry is happy he’s found it.
Terence is happy too, grinning as he gets into the van for the drive back to Manuel Antonio. He’s managed to score a small packet of their hand-made chocolate that they’re experimenting with. But more on that in the next post!
Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation