Costa Rican Spice Idyll

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I recently took a short trip to Costa Rica.  I tagged along with a surfing friend out of curiosity to see this paradise of Central America that so many dream about.  What a beautiful and interesting place! We stayed on the Pacific side and managed to visit mountains, waterfalls, a national wildlife park, and a spice plantation.  The spice plantation,  Villa Vanilla, was definitely one of the trip’s highlights.

A place that was originally flat grassy ranchland is now, decades later, planted in a complex interrelated, highly curated “forest” of canopy and understory.  The Vanilla, an orchid vine grows on various small trees.  It’s 100% hand pollinated (with needles) and yields the biggest beans I’ve ever seen.  As the vine matures and produces subsequent harvests the beans get smaller.  Sometimes the vanilla is looped around Ceylon cinnamon branches.  Yep,  canela is another product of Villa Vanilla.  We were able to watch as Gabriela shaved off the exterior bark to reveal the soft wood that becomes cinnamon sticks.  Once all the softer bark is shaved off for cinnamon, they hit hard wood which is then dried and used to fuel the ovens which heat the vanilla drying area.  Everything is designed to work together in this certified Bio-Dynamic plantation.

Another revelation was eating fresh pepper berries off the vine.  It’s sharp, hot, and green, with a long lasting heat and nearly floral flavor –  mind blowing, actually.  I wish I could have a steady supply of those fresh babies.  We saw the pepper vines tangled over bushes and small trees.  The same peppercorns produce pink, white and black pepper. And don’t get me started on the cocoa.  There they are, strange prehistoric looking huge pods attached to the trunks of small trees.  We had the opportunity to taste a homemade chocolate bar made by using a champion juicer to grind the nibs.  I’m not a chocolate person, but this was food – Food of the Gods as they say.  The cocoa powder is light in color but very deep in flavor. If you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica, check Villa Vanilla out on your way to Manuel Antonio to see the monkeys and sloths.  At least you can take some vanilla home.