Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part I

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

P1110204Before 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 P1110256plants. 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 P1070032cookie 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 P1110195the 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 P1110187to 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.

vanilla-flower-542019_1920The 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. 

P1070023There 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).


1-Susan Belsinger

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

HSA Webinar: A History of Chocolate

By Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

20190613_150017Chocolate: food or medicine? For centuries, chocolate was consumed primarily as medicine. Cacao, from which chocolate is derived, was the basis for prescriptions promising relief from such ailments as anemia, alopecia, fever, gout, heart disease, kidney and liver disease, along with tuberculosis. Prescriptions from the 16th and 17th centuries would combine cacao with cinnamon, sugar, pepper, cloves, vanilla, and/or anise to ease common complaints. Certainly modern day amoxicillin could benefit from such a delicious concoction.  

It was only in the 19th century that chocolate became more of a food staple and less of a medicine. This was in part because of the expansion of where cacao could be grown. Cacao is a New World food, but the Portuguese brought the cacao tree to the African tropics. The development of machinery made it easier to separate cacao butter from the seeds, and so the making of chocolate became easier. As advances were made, chocolate became mainstream with Nestle, Godiva, La Maison du Chocolat, Fauchon, Lindt, Suchard, and Sprüngli elevating chocolate to a decadent treat. Today, it is consumed in all sorts of shapes and for different reasons: to soothe the day’s stress, to celebrate birthdays, or to show one’s love on Valentine’s Day. 

0004Join us on January 12th at 1pm EST when HSA’s guest speaker and author, Sarah Lohman, joins us for a “History of Chocolate.” During this program, we’ll uncover the history of chocolate, from its roots as an ancient Meso-American beverage to a contemporary melt-in-your-mouth chocolate bar. You’ll learn how a yellow, football-shaped tropical fruit transforms into high-end dark chocolate and what “Mexican Hot Chocolate” actually has in common with what Montezuma drank. We’ll cover botany, “Chocolate Wars,” and what makes Hershey’s distinctive flavor.

Our webinars are free to members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today and enjoy all our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over 50 program titles. To register visit www.HerbSociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

Photo Credits: 1) Box of chocolates (Chrissy Moore); 2) Author and speaker Sarah Lohman (Sarah Lohman).


Sarah Lohman is a culinary historian and the author of the bestselling book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. She focuses on the history of food as a way to access the stories of diverse Americans. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as on “All Things Considered.” Sarah has also presented across the country, from the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., to The Culinary Historians of Southern California. Her current project, Endangered Eating: Exploring America’s Vanishing Cuisine, will be released with W.W. Norton & Co. in 2021.

Botanical Brews – An introductory guide to using tropical specialty ingredients in beer

By Amanda Dix

(Blogmasters’ note: Experiencing craft beer is a high point for many connoisseurs these days. While beer in its various forms has been around for millennia, today’s brew-masters have taken beer to a whole new level by adding unique flavor combinations to their recipes. Capitalizing on that trend, many gardens and arboreta are incorporating special tasting events into their program repertoire that highlight the herbs that make each brew unique. Below are some of horticulturist and brewer Amanda Dix’s suggestions for upping your botanical beer game. Even if you don’t brew yourself, these might inspire you to try new things and understand how herbs are woven into this timeless beverage.)

Many culinary dishes and beverages are abundant with tropical herbs, spices, and fruit. Beer is no exception, and using unique ingredients alongside barley, hops, and yeast is very common these days.

When formulating a beer recipe, be sure to take into account all of the ingredients collectively. There are so many types of malt, yeast, and hops out there. Focusing on how each ingredient will interact and complement each other is key to making a multi-layered, yet balanced brew.

First, start with the base beer and decide what flavors would interact well with the fruit, herb, or spice. Ask yourself:

What type of flavor does this malt give off? (biscuit, caramel, roasty, malty)

What kind of esters or phenols does this yeast make? (fruity, spicy, funky, none)

What flavors, aromas, and bitterness does this hop provide? (spicy, woody, fruity, floral)

Second, decide at what point in the brewing process this specialty ingredient will be most useful. One of the easiest ways to impart additional flavors in your beer is to add fruit, herbs, or spices during the secondary (post) fermentation process. They can be added to the boil, but their flavor and aroma will be more subtle. So, for the most punch, add some botanical blends during secondary fermentation. The sky’s the limit when it comes to the infusions you create, but here are a few ideas to get you started. CHEERS!

ginger-1960613_960_720Ginger (fresh, thinly sliced)

0.5-1 oz. per gallon in secondary fermentation (or 0.25-1 oz. per gallon in last 5 minutes of boil)

Beer style suggestions: American Wheat, Kolsch, Stout, Belgian, Sour/Wild Ale.

Roasted_coffee_beansCoffee (whole bean, crushed, or cold brewed)

4 oz. cold brewed per gallon in secondary fermentation OR 1-2 oz. whole bean or crushed per gallon in secondary fermentation.

Beer style suggestions: Stout, Porter, Cream Ale.

5474684018_9181629f19_bChocolate (cocoa nibs)

4-10 oz. per gallon in secondary fermentation.

Beer style suggestions: Stout, Porter, Brown Ale.

 

Citrus_fruits

Citrus (lemon, lime, orange, tangerine, mandarin, grapefruit, kumquat, etc.)

0.5-1.5 lbs. per gallon in secondary fermentation.

Beer style suggestions: Hefeweizen, American Wheat, Saison, IPA, Sour/Wild Ale.

hibiscus calyxHibiscus (dried calyx)

1-1.5 oz. per gallon in secondary fermentation (or make tea infusion).

Beer style suggestions: Wheat, Sour/Wild Ale, Bonde, Kolsch, IPA (or anything light colored to admire the red coloration and delicate flower aroma).

nutmeg-390318_1280Cardamom, Clove, Nutmeg, or Cinnamon

4-5 grams per 5 gallon batch in secondary fermentation.

Beer style suggestions: Wheat Ales, Saison, Stout/Porter (holiday beer), Pumpkin beer.

 

vanilla-vanilla-bars-spice-ingredients-royalty-free-thumbnail

Vanilla (whole bean sliced/scraped)

2-3 beans per 5 gallon batch – soak in vodka or bourbon for two weeks and add tincture to secondary fermentation.

Beer style suggestions: Stout, Porter, Belgian.

 


hibiscus for beerAmanda got her B.S. in Environmental Horticulture with an emphasis on floriculture crop production from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She has always had a strong passion for anything involving the outdoors/nature and plants/animals. Her wide array of experience in the horticulture field at botanical gardens, arboreta, nurseries, and farms has led her to become the Assistant Conservatory Curator at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, WI. Amanda works in the tropical conservatory and oversees the production of the annuals that go out in Olbrich’s 16 acres of gardens. For the past 10 years, she has had a strong passion for craft beer and brewing, and hopes to one day become a Certified Cicerone.

Chocolate – Food of the Gods

By Maryann Readal

In 1753, it was Carl Linnaeus who gave cacao, The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month, its botanical name: Theobroma cacao, from theos meaning god and broma meaning food – food of the gods. The Mayans gave it the name xocoatl, (pronounced sho-KWA-til). According to The True History of Chocolate authors Sophie and Michael Coe, the most likely history of the word “chocolate” is that the Spaniards combined the Maya word chocol, meaning “hot,” and the Aztec atl, meaning “water,” to produce chocolatl.

It is believed that Olmec Indians began using cacao beans for beverages as early as 250 BCE. But it was the Mayans who really domesticated the tree and discovered its many uses. They were the first to grow cacao trees on plantations. The drink they made from cacao beans was reserved for the Mayan wealthy and important and was used in religious ceremonies. The beans were also used as money in trade with the Aztecs.

theobroma

Flowers on cacao tree

The Aztecs, however, began to flavor the ground beans with other spices such as chile, cinnamon, pepper, and vanilla and then frothed the beverage with a molinillo, the Mexican chocolate whisk. The drink they created was also reserved for high government officials, priests, and the warrior classes. The Aztecs believed that their god, Quetzalcoatl, taught them about the many uses of cacao.

Along comes Christopher Columbus in 1492 on his fourth try to find a water route to India, but discovers the Americas instead. He brings back the cacao beans to King Ferdinand and Isabella, who were not as enamored with the beans as they were with the other treasures he brought from the New World.  A few years later, Hernando Cortez came to the Vera Cruz, Mexico area in the early 1500’s and learned first hand from the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, the exhilarating uses of cacao. He brought his discovery of the effects of the cacao beverage and its preparation to King Charles V of Spain, and this time it was greeted with much interest and led to Cortez conquering the Aztec Empire and developing  large cacao plantations for Spain. This was the beginning of the Spanish monopoly of cacao beans that lasted 200 years.

Europe accepted the use of chocolate as a medicine because the Mesoamericans used it as a remedy for many ailments for centuries. And Europeans found that it was a medicine that had pleasant, euphoric effects. These effects were what caused the church at the height of the Middle Ages to circumscribe its use, claiming that it caused immoral behaviors. Monks were forbidden to use chocolate and it was not allowed to be drunk while fasting. The chocolate beverage could only be drunk for medicinal reasons.

The debate about the medicinal qualities of chocolate continued well into the 1900’s in Europe, with many noted physicians chiming in on the subject. In the 18th century, it was Carl Linnaeus who wrote about the nourishment and therapeutic qualities of chocolate saying that “it could be used to lose weight, help lung and muscles diseases, hypochondria, and hemorrhoids.” In fact, cacao butter, which is the fat extracted from ground cacao beans, is still used today in suppositories for hemorrhoids. Now that will make you pause before eating a white chocolate rabbit at Easter.

The Nestle company introduced milk into chocolate to create milk chocolate in 1867, which completely changed the taste of chocolate. This new chocolate reignited the health debate concerning chocolate, with physicians claiming that the milk chocolate caused obesity, dental problems, and an unhealthy lifestyle.

In the early 20th century, chocolate became more important as food rather than as medicine. In fact, chocolate was included in World War II’s K and D rations as a healthy and quick source of energy for soldiers on the battlefield. In her book Plants Go To War, Judith Sumner discusses the use of chocolate in British Intelligence efforts in which chocolate bars were “impregnated with garlic to mimic the smell of the French whom they were impersonating.” She also reports that there was a German plan to assassinate Winston Churchill with a booby-trapped chocolate bar. The plot was never implemented.

In 1930, Nestle introduced white chocolate, which is cacao butter mixed with sugar. And in 2018 the Swiss company Barry-Callebaut introduced a ruby–or “pink”–chocolate into the market.

chocolate, pink

pink chocolate

Named the fourth chocolate, it is pink and fruity tasting.  This chocolate reportedly comes from special ruby cacao beans.

Debate and research continues on chocolate as a medicine.  Researchers do ascribe chocolate with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.  Some data also shows that apart from its pleasant effects, chocolate consumption improves brain function. Studies also link the flavonoids in dark chocolate with a reduced risk of diabetes. Consumption of dark chocolate is also believed to protect the heart.

However, chocolate may be returning to its Aztec roots with chocolate artisans introducing herbs, spices, flowers, and all kinds of ingredients into chocolate, making it not only a food of the gods but a food of the people, too – especially around Valentine’s Day.

A nice history of chocolate can be found at The Nibble https://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/chocolate/the-history-of-chocolate.asp.

And for more information and chocolate recipes, please see The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page for February.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pine trees in the Piney Woods of East Texas.