Rare vanilla spice from Quepos produced in fully organic setting

These vanilla pods still are on the vine. Photo courtesy of Henry Karczynski

Chefs and hobby cooks from around the world visit Villa Vanilla, a certified organic/biodynamic spice farm operated by Henry Karczynski in Villanueva near Quepos.  The farm grows a variety of spices and essential oil plants, including vanilla, cocoa, and ceylon cinnamon.

The farm got international notice when it was the recipient of the periodic  “Longest Vanilla Bean” award in August 2008.  An independent vanilla Web site awarded this honor to the farm, proclaiming it to be the ultimate organic vanilla producer. The farm produced beans from 9.5 to 10.5 inches or from 24.5 cm to 26.5 cm. The award is a way of highlighting top vanilla producers.

Karczynski, a soft-spoken man and a U.S. expatriate with an MBA from Illinois, found his calling as a farmer while serving in the Peace Corps.  “Happiness and success are not defined by one´s amount of financial wealth,” he said. “I enjoy what I do, and I am fortunate that it also affords me and my family a living.”

After purchasing degraded pasture land in Quepos 23 years ago, Karczynski transformed the farm using agroforestry, permaculture and tropical biodynamic cultural practices.  Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies. The plantation is now also visited by students, researchers and practitioners of sustainable development, said Karczynski.

The farm markets its spices under the Rainforest Spices label.

The plantation offers a tour for visitors. The vanilla vines grow on a host tree and the dangling pods are filled with tiny edible seeds, said Karczynski. He notes that vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world. The plant is a type of orchid.

The pods have no flavor when they are picked, and it is the curing process that turns them into the highly demanded spice.

On his Web site Karczynski notes that “the pod can be chopped finely or processed in a blender and used to flavor cakes, puddings, ice cream, milkshakes and many everyday sweet dishes. The whole pod can also be used to flavor custards and other liquids, taken out, dried carefully and used again up to three or four times. To flavor milk, allow one bean per 500 ml, bring to a boil and allow to stand for an hour.

His two and a half hour spice plantation tour is topped off with a session of tasting of gourmet pastries and drinks made by his pastry chef.  At the tasting, exquisite spice drinks and desserts are brought to the tourists one after the other while they relax at Villa Vanilla´s secluded mirador overlooking mountains and rainforest.  A naturally sweet Ceylon cinnamon tea, vanilla/lime cheesecake, vanilla and/or cinnamon ice cream, and even farm grown and processed chocolate (cacao) for cookies and chocolate drinks are some of the offerings.  According to Karczynski, his Villa Vanilla plantation is one of two places in the world, the other being India, where these types of quality organic spices can be purchased, and even ordered via his Web site, www.rainforestspices.com.

Karczynski discovered on the farm ancient cacao artifacts used as tools in cracking cacao beans, including a large, egg-shaped stone, metate and mano in Spanish, and a rock mortar and pestle.  Villa Vanilla actually uses the large rock mortar and pestle artifact to help in the production of cacao nibs, edible pieces of pure cacao. It is clear that the pre-Colombian native inhabitants valued cacao plants, too.

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