I’ve always wanted to visit a vanilla or cacao farm. In 2015, that wish came true, all at the Villa Vanilla farm about 10 miles east of Quepos overlooking Manuel Antonio National Park!
A very popular flavouring, vanilla comes from vine orchids native to the region of the world we now call Mexico. The unique orchid can produce what we call “beans”. The beans (or pods) are filled with innumerable tiny seeds, which we scrape out with a knife when a recipe calls for “vanilla bean.”
According to legends, vanilla was held sacred to the ancient Totonac peoples, which they called the “nectar of the gods.” Vanilla was first introduced to Europe in the early 1500s. Today, it’s one of the world’s most highly-valued and sought-after flavourings. It’s grown in many tropical countries, including Costa Rica—a delightful country I travelled to recently.
By searching online (thank you Google), I found out about a biodynamic farm called “Villa Vanilla” near Quepos, a coastal town on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. I was over the moon when I discovered the farm offers tours. I convinced my travelling companions to join me, and in a few days we punched the address into our rental jeep’s GPS and set off.
We arrived on time according to the instructions, and we certainly weren’t the only one interested in learning about vanilla and cocoa. About 20 others joined 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 how the plant has to be pollinated by hand in order to produce beans since it only blooms for about a day all year. Can you imagine? Growing vanilla seems to require a very watchful eye—and patience, too.
I wondered how we humans discovered vanilla in the first place. I mean really, to get vanilla, we learned, the plant has to be hand-pollinated just once a year, and then the pods dried and fermented. How did we figure this out? I’m glad someone did!
The US-born, now Costa Rican farmer Hank (Henry) Karcynski has been cultivating the land at Villa Vanilla since the late 80s. The farm has been organic since day one, said Henry, who doesn’t believe in chemical pesticides that could disrupt the soil microbiological balance—the basis for plant nutrition.
Apart from vanilla orchids, he also cares for cacao trees (trees that produce pods used to make chocolate), cassia cinnamon, chilli pepper, white/ black pepper, turmeric, tulsi and more. Anyone interested in learning and seeing these tropical-spice plants firsthand will enjoy a Villa Vanilla tour!
Apart from vanilla, the tour also highlighted cocoa production and chocolate as well, as Theobroma cacao, or the cacao tree is native to the tropical regions of the Americas. As a chocolate lover (it might even be considered an obsession ;)), I really enjoyed this part of the experience.
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. Essentially we were about to eat the seeds of the cocoa tree fruit. She explained how the beans are dried and fermented before being roasted and then used to make what most consider the best dessert or snack—if not food—of all. Chocolate, of course.
Part farm tour and part sensory tour, we then got to try some chocolate made with vanilla grown right on the Villa Vanilla farm. Bursting with flavour, I can say this sample was surely among the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted in the world! It was quite unique to taste chocolate prepared with fresh vanilla, too; it’s not that common of a blend.
The tour ended with more food. After a walk through the plants to the back of the farm, we were greeted with chilled glasses of chilled pure cinnamon tea, a tasty vanilla-bean cheesecake and a warm, brownie-like cookie topped with vanilla ice cream. My sweet tooth was definitely satisfied for the day (if not the next few).
I can’t say what part of this sensory farm tour was better: the food or seeing the thriving tropical plants firsthand. I left knowing a whole lot more about flavours and plants so commonplace for many of us, yet so mysterious because they grow in the tropics—far away from my home in Toronto, Canada, at least.
For anyone interested in knowing more about where vanilla, chocolate or tropical spices like cinnamon come from, adding a tour of Villa Vanilla farm to your travel bucket list is highly recommended!