Thoughts About Wood

By Susan Belsinger

Trees covered in snowI love trees. They are a life-long study for me. When I was a child growing up in red-brick rowhouses in Baltimore, ours was the only postage-stamp backyard on the block with a tree. It was a maple, and the samaras fascinated me. We called them whirligigs or helicopters and threw them up in the air and watched them spiral downwards. Many a kid climbed that tree and somehow, I managed to drag the lid of an old wooden toy box up there and nail it down so I had a tree fort—only two small children were able to sit upon it. 

The property that I have lived on for the past 40 years or so has lots of trees, and I walk in the woods nearly every day, communing with nature and for exercise—it is my daily solace. I tend to walk in the late afternoon, often just before dusk—my favorite time of day. This way, I get to hear the honking of the Canada geese long before I see them and stop to watch them fly over—something I will never tire of. 

Autumn leaves on treesOur woods are mostly Northeastern deciduous trees that slope down to the Cattail River. Down along the river’s edge there are a lot of shaggy-barked river birch, also some really big sycamores. There are quite a few types of large old oaks, as well as hickory and maple trees, with locust and cherry amongst them and sassafras and Osage orange along the wood’s edge. The understory consists of a healthy population of spicebush, with wild rose, honeysuckle, brambles, occasional viburnum, dogwood, and holly. 

I mostly walk the deer trails, and I sometimes take my pruners with me to whack back woody growth and brambles that encroach the path. The adjoining neighbor’s farm has many horse trails, so there are different options for my daily woods walk. Heading back uphill from any direction, I pass through or by the garden where there is a large stand of bamboo, where our songbirds spend the night. As the sun sets, they flit about and flock to this multi-complex to roost, and I take great delight in the cacophony of evensong.

Wood stove with logsAlthough I grew up as a city kid, I’ve been a country gal for a long while. In order to build this house, the woods needed to be cleared to make a place for it. It is a passive solar house, however the woodstove is the main source of heat. In the winter, it is a 24/7 job; it seems that wood chores are never-ending.

“Miraculous powers and marvelous activitiesdrawing water and hewing wood

—P’ang Yun, Buddhist monk, 9th century

Fortunately, we have quite a bit of woods and often use downed trees that are easy to get to. Sometimes we cut down old or dead wood or trees that just need removing. Though they are necessary tools, I personally don’t use a chainsaw—I wait until that part of hewing wood is complete, and then I’m in for the long haul. There is the picking up of the cut logs and loading them into the wheelbarrow and wheeling them to the woodpile, if they need to age, or to the back porch, if they are dry enough to burn. There are many locations where it is not possible to use the wheelbarrow, and each log has to be carried out to a clearing. There is time during all of this back-and-forthing to enjoy the woods; resting and reflecting between trips, I find it can be meditative. 

Large pile of split woodSince the ancient tractor is not running, we’ve got an old beat-up jeep that has become the farm wagon. With the seats folded down, it can hold a surprising amount of wood. Three rows from floor to ceiling is over half a cord of wood. That’s how we measure wood here, in Maryland, and states north of here. Down South, they deal with firewood in ricks. 

Apparently, a rick of firewood is not a consistent measurement, and it varies from place to place—so one does not know exactly how much firewood they are actually getting, according to the website Firewood-For-Life (https://www.firewood-for-life.com/rick-of-firewood.html). They state: “The length of the logs dictates how much wood you get. Generally speaking, if the logs are cut 16 inches long and are stacked 4 feet high by 8 feet long, a rick will be 1/3 of a cord. If these same logs were cut 24 inches long, the rick would equal 1/2 cord.”

Wheelbarrow full of split woodRegardless of measurement, once the logs are cut into stove-size lengths and then split, they have to be picked up and put in the jeep, tractor wagon, wheelbarrow, whatever, to transport them to where they will be stacked. I can no longer push a full wheelbarrow—I can only fill it about halfway. (It is good to know one’s limitations, and I have become thoughtful about this. I like it when the strong, young adults are available to help with this task.)

Recently, I tried to move an overfull wheelbarrow, which was on an incline—I knew it was going to topple over—and so I let go just as it happened; however, I was still moving with the momentum, and so down I went. Coincidentally, just the night before, I was reading a section in Twyla Tharp’s book, Keep it Moving, and she was discussing the best way to fall: don’t fight it—don’t try to stop it by putting out your hand—just go with it. And that is exactly what I did. Fortunately, I had on many layers of clothing, so when I landed on the leaf-covered forest floor, I wasn’t hurt at all. The hardest part was getting up: think turtle on their back + bundled up like the Pillsbury doughboy = LOL. 

What I have learned in my “cronedom” is to be more thoughtful…of my body and my surroundings. When working in the woods, there are all sorts of vines and stumps to trip over (especially when my arms are full) and branches and twigs to poke me, not to mention brambles that grab my clothes, hair, and more than once, have taken off my hat! Being mindful of how to bend—taking the weight in the knees rather than straining the back—gotta’ look out for these poor old aching knees.

Each log has to be handled again to unload them and stack them in the yard or on the porch. The back porch can hold a cord of wood, though it is five steps up and down with each armload of wood. You’d think I’d have abs of steel with all of this bending and lifting…not….I’ve still got a soft Botticelli belly, most likely due to age, gravity, my penchant for cooking good food, and enjoyment of a cold beer or libation after a hard day of wood-working. 

IMG_9296There is an art to stacking wood. In a freestanding pile, the ends have to be built up in order to hold the wood. They have to be sturdy and not wobbly, and the wood has to be stacked neatly, so the whole pile won’t fall over with a 30-mile an hour wind gust (yes, it has happened). The back porch stacks are ones that can be burned right away, and generally, there is a box or bucket of kindling nearby. All stacks are covered along the top with tarps to keep the rain and snow from soaking them.

Every day, the wood box inside next to the stove needs to be filled—it is big enough to hold enough wood for about a 24-hour period. While most house members use a big canvas log-carrier bag, I tend to carry three or four logs in at a time in my arms. It takes me about ten trips to fill the wood box, whereas it takes the others only three or four trips with a full bag. Slow and steady does the trick. And then there is the stoking of the stove, which is a science in itself. First off, all types of wood burn differently: some are dense, some burn very hot, and some shoot sparks. The dryness or wetness of the wood is another factor. IMG_9446Oftentimes, if I am busy cooking or writing, I don’t think of loading the stove, and it comes close to going out. Then, I have to use smaller pieces of wood to get it going again. So, having an assortment of sizes matters. 

I am the last to go to bed, and so I stoke the stove full and then turn the vents down to just the right place so that the stove will burn all night. I know the place where the vents catch just a bit and know to back off just a half turn—I know it by feel and by the sound—it is finding the sweet spot so that the stove will have hot coals for the first one up in the morning to tend. And then the vents are opened up; the coals are stirred and brought forward; smaller pieces of wood are added and then larger ones; and the house gets toasty. A kettle of water atop the stove gets filled every time the stove gets filled to keep some moisture in the air, since wood stoves are so drying. The bowl of bread dough covered with a damp towel is set to rise on a stool alongside the stove; soup pots are reheated on the stove; and dinner Soaking in a hot tubplates or bowls are placed on top to warm. Guests tend to gravitate toward the stove and stand nearby to soak in the warmth, turning from front to back to warm both sides. Cats and dogs lay so close sometimes, you’d think it would boil their brains! There is nothing like the warmth or smell of a wood stove. 

I am thankful for the trees, that I am able to be outside and hew wood, and keep the home fires burning. And, I am especially grateful at the end of the day to draw a hot bath, adding Epsom salts and fragrant and therapeutic essential oils, to soak my body in after a day of wood work.

Photo Credits: 1) Snow-covered trees (C. Moore); 2) Tree canopy in fall (C. Moore); 3) Wood stove (Angela Magnan); 4) Pile of chopped wood (Susan Belsinger); 5) Wheelbarrow full of chopped wood destined for wood stove (Susan Belsinger); 6) Stacked wood on author’s porch (Susan Belsinger); 7) Author carrying load of wood (Susan Belsinger); 8) Bath tub scene (Creative Commons, swister_p).


thumbnail_IMG_7611Susan 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 – 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

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

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.)

“Plain vanilla is very much like that little black cocktail dress—always welcome, simply chic, so quietly dramatic.”

                —Lisa Yockelson, from Baking by Flavor

Vanilla in the Kitchen

P1110888Although I am a chocolate lover, I have always adored the fragrance of vanilla. More than once as a child, I tasted vanilla extract straight from the bottle—knowing full well that I wouldn’t like it—I just could not resist, because it always smelled so good.   

Back in my early adult years—and the beginning of my lifetime association with natural foods, herbs, and spices—I used vanilla beyond the kitchen. I found the aroma alluring, so why not use it like perfume? I would dab it behind my ears and on my pulse points. Occasionally, I would sprinkle cinnamon or nutmeg on my hands and run them through my hair. Ah, the innocence of youth—here I thought I smelled exotic and delicious (vanilla is known as an aphrodisiac)—and most people probably thought I smelled like a cinnamon bun!

The fragrance of pure vanilla extract and the essential oil is at once exotic, tropical, warm, and sensual—a combination of flowery and resinous, with a slight hint of bitterness. Due to its enticing scent, one would think it tastes sweet and flowery, but that is not the case. We associate vanilla as being sweet because it is used in every type of confection and sweet food from cereals, buns, and cakes to cookies, ice creams, and, of course, chocolate. Some vanilla beans have that exotic flowery scent, while others smell like bitter chocolate, winey, or even slightly smoky. I think they taste fruity—rather raisin-like—sometimes flowery, smooth, and slightly sweet and resinous.

P1110219Vanilla is everywhere today—we seem to take it for granted—and it isn’t just plain old vanilla anymore. It partners with many other flavors—not just desserts—but drinks, soups, sauces, and rice dishes; with seafood, from lobster with vanilla butter to seafood salad; as a glaze for poultry and pork; in barbecue sauces and in condiments from vinaigrettes to mustard…even mashed potatoes! It makes chocolate seductive, and works well with spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger—while subtly enhancing just about any baked good. It complements dairy products, coffee, and tea and brightens any fresh fruit bowl or cooked compote. Generally, vanilla highlights most foods without being too forward or overbearing.

Vanilla Products

Vanilla comes in many forms. Although vanilla pods are the source for pure vanilla extract, they aren’t commonly used by the home cook as often as the extract is used. The following list of vanilla products should help you know your beans better:

Whole Vanilla Beans 

The largest producers of Vanilla planifolia are Madagascar and Mexico, and they are renowned for growing and curing the world’s best beans. Tahitian vanilla beans, V. tahitensis, are known for their intense perfume, though they are said to be less flavorful. When purchasing whole beans, they should smell fragrant, should be a dark chocolate brown, and somewhat pliable rather than hard and dried. Store them in a tightly closed jar in a cool dark place away from light, and they should last a few years. Do not freeze or refrigerate.

Pure Vanilla Extract

To extract the flavor from vanilla beans, alcohol must be used. It is usually done with a menstruum of alcohol and water (rather like making a tincture). An extract must be 35% alcohol—the label should read “Pure Vanilla Extract.” If it is less than this, it is considered a flavoring. Read your labels: imitation vanilla is often made from artificial vanillin rather than natural vanillin, which is usually synthetically made and is a by-product of the paper industry. Mexican vanilla extract can be very good if it is pure, but beware of inexpensive extracts; it should alert you to the fact that it is probably synthetic.

Vanilla Bean PasteVanilla bean paste

This thick brown paste is made from pure vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, sugar, water, and a natural thickener, gum tragacanth. The label states equivalents of 1 tablespoon of vanilla bean paste equals 1 vanilla bean or 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract. It is sweeter than vanilla extract and much thicker but can be used anywhere you would use vanilla extract. I use it in all kinds of baked goods from muffins and cakes to cookies and bars. It elevates oatmeal to another level when combined with fresh sliced peaches or dried blueberries or cherries and maple syrup.

Pure Vanilla Powder

This fine-textured powder is made from vanilla bean extractives and maltodextrin and is alcohol-free; it can be used in place of vanilla extract. Upon tasting it, it is slightly sweet and leaves a residue on the tongue. It can be used for dry mixtures and liquid- or color-sensitive products. You can sprinkle it on fruit or in your coffee, tea, or cocoa. I have used it in whipping cream, buttercream, and angel food cake. 

Vanilla Sugar

Vanilla sugar has been made for centuries by placing a vanilla bean in sugar to give it a lovely vanilla perfume and flavor. Nowadays, vanilla sugar can be purchased commercially, but you can easily make your own. 

For those willing to venture out from the grocery store offerings, below are some easy-to-make vanilla staple recipes.

Vanilla Bean Syrup

When I was a kid my favorite snowball flavor was Egg Custard. I could never figure out why it was called that—it tasted like vanilla to me. This syrup reminds me of that egg custard flavor. In fact, try it over shaved ice for a snowball. It also makes an excellent vanilla bean soda when mixed with sparkling water or served over ice cream for a vanilla ice cream soda. Use it with coffee to make a vanilla latte or as a sweetener in your hot or iced tea. It can be used in fruit salads, or drizzled over baked goods warm from the oven, like pound cake, scones, breads, or muffins. My kids used to object to the aesthetics of the little black seeds—I rather like them— so if they bother you, strain the syrup through fine cheesecloth or muslin to remove them. This can be made with maple syrup instead of sugar; however, the maple flavor will dominate.

(Makes a little more than 2 cups)

1 cup organic sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1 vanilla bean

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and cut it into thirds crosswise.  

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, add the vanilla bean pieces, and stir. Reduce heat, cover, and barely simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, covered.  

Remove vanilla bean and reserve the pieces—they can be dried and used to make vanilla sugar. Pour the syrup into a bottle or jar and label. It will keep in the refrigerator for one month or can be frozen for about six months. 

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Most pure vanilla extract is about 35% alcohol and contains water, sugar, and vanilla bean extractives. It is pretty easy to make your own version. It won’t taste just like the commercial brands—it probably won’t be quite as intense in vanilla flavor, but I find it very satisfactory. Vodka will allow the most vanilla bean flavor to come through. However, I often make mine with brandy or rum because I like the flavor of them. Remember, you only use 1 to 2 teaspoons in a recipe, so a little goes a long way. Try experimenting to see what you like best.  

(Makes about 1 cup or an 8-ounce bottle, or halve the recipe for a smaller amount.)

P11101942 or 3 vanilla beans

8 ounces of vodka, rum, or brandy

Cut the vanilla beans in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put them into a clean, dark glass, 8-ounce bottle. (I save my old vanilla extract bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the alcohol into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. Place in a cool place out of direct light.  

The extract should be shaken once a day, at least for the first week. I do it whenever I go into the pantry and think about it. I usually uncap it and take a whiff—it is a form of kitchen aromatherapy for me, the wealth of the cook. You can use it after a week, but it is best after three or four weeks and gets better as it ages.

The longer it sits, the more intense the flavor. While commercial vanilla extract has the beans removed, I leave the beans in the bottle and as I use the extract, I top it off with more alcohol. Occasionally, I add another bean.

Vanilla Vinegar

Once you have this on hand, you will begin to use it in many dishes, and you will wonder why you never had it before. I use organic apple cider, umeboshi plum, rice wine, or white wine vinegar, which are naturally made and good tasting. Do not make this with distilled vinegar. I often make fresh fruited vanilla vinegars, with peach or raspberry being my favorites. (Add 1 whole, ripe peach, peeled and sliced, or 1-pint raspberries to the jar when combining the vinegar and vanilla bean, and let macerate for at least three to four weeks. Strain, if desired.) I use vanilla-flavored vinegar in small amounts in vinaigrettes, dressings, fruit and vegetable salads, and sauces. I particularly love what it does to Waldorf salad.

(Makes 1 pint)

1 pint good-quality vinegar, preferably organic

1 whole vanilla bean

Cut the vanilla bean in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put the pieces into a clean, 1-pint bottle. (I save used vinegar or soy sauce bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the vinegar into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. I leave the bottle on the kitchen counter for about two weeks and shake it every day, twice a day. You can use it after a week, but it is best after 3 or 4 weeks.  

The longer it sits, the better the flavor. As the vinegar gets used up, I top it off with a little more vinegar. I also add pieces of dried vanilla bean that I have already used.

Preparing Vanilla-Scented Sugar

Scented sugars can easily be made the same way that the Europeans have been making vanilla sugar for years. Placing a vanilla bean in a pint jar of sugar transforms the sugar into a pleasing, fragrant addition to beverages, cakes, cookies, custards, whipping cream, and all sorts of sweets. Sprinkle a little on fruit and toss it, or stir some into your tea or coffee cup. If you do a lot of baking, make this in larger quantities—say a quart or half-gallon jar— as you will find that you use it often.

(Makes 2 cups)vanilla-2519484_1920

About 2 cups organic sugar

1 vanilla bean, cut into 3 or 4 pieces

To prepare scented sugar, use a clean pint jar with a tight-fitting lid. Fill the jar about one-third full with sugar, and place one or two pieces of vanilla bean in the sugar. Cover the vanilla bean with additional sugar so that the jar is two-thirds full, add another piece or two, and cover with sugar to fill the jar, leaving about 1/2-inch headspace. Shake the jar and place on a shelf in a cool, dark place.  

The sugar will be ready to use in two to three weeks and will become more flavorful with age. As the sugar is consumed, add more plain sugar to take its place and it will take on the fragrance in the jar. I also add dried pieces of vanilla beans that I have already used for another purpose.

Since vanilla beans contain moisture, the sugar will absorb some of it and perhaps cake together, or even harden. If this happens, just use firm pressure to crumble it with either your hands or the back of a wooden spoon.

Hot Vanilla Milk

Make this milk when you can’t sleep and cocoa might keep you awake, or for those rare individuals who don’t like the flavor of chocolate. You can use sugar to sweeten, but I really like the maple syrup best; go light on the sweetener as you hardly need any. If you don’t have vanilla bean paste, use a generous teaspoon pure vanilla extract and 1 1/2 teaspoons sweetener, or add 2 tablespoons of Vanilla Syrup.

(Makes 1 cup, easily doubled)

1 cup milk (whole, 1 or 2 %, or oat or almond milk)

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

1 teaspoon pure maple syrup or organic sugar

In a small saucepan, bring the milk almost to a simmer over medium low heat. Stir in the vanilla bean paste and sweetener and blend until it is dissolved. If you are using extract, remove the warmed milk from the heat and add the extract and sweetener; stir to dissolve. 

Taste the milk—if you have a sweet tooth, you may want to add another teaspoon of sweetener. Pour the vanilla milk into a mug. Inhale the vanilla aroma before you take your first sip. Relax and enjoy. 

Vanilla Butter Cookies with Cacao Nibs

This is a simple butter cookie recipe (from not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes), though instead of using herbs, cacao bean nibs are added. They are further enhanced by using vanilla bean sugar as well as pure vanilla extract; the vanilla compliments the flavor of cacao. These cookies keep well in a tin for a week or two, and they also freeze well.

(Makes about 5 dozen cookies)

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softenedcocoa nibs

1 cup vanilla bean sugar

1 extra-large egg

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup unbleached white flour

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cacao nibs

In the bowl of a food processor, cream the butter and sugar. When combined, beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Gradually mix in the flour and salt. Add cacao nibs and pulse just to combine. 

The dough will be soft. Divide the dough into two parts. Using plastic wrap to shape the dough, roll each part into a cylinder about 1 1/2-inches in diameter. Chill the rolls for an hour, or place in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes.      

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the plastic wrap, and slice the dough into 1/4-inch rounds. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets, and bake for about 10 minutes until the cookies are nice and brown.  Remove the cookies from the baking sheets while they are hot and cool on racks.

Photo Credits: 1) Author overlooking Costa Rican forest (S. Belsinger); 2) Vanilla products (S. Belsinger); 3) Vanilla bean paste (C. Moore); 4) Bundle of dried vanilla pods (S. Belsinger); 5) Vanilla bean sugar (Pixaby); 6) Cocoa nibs (C. Moore).

References/Resources

Here is a link to a BBC article about vanilla grown in other parts of the world—you’ll see why it is so expensive and actually how dangerous it can be to cultivate this valuable crop nowadays. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/madagascar_vanillla

Conversation with Matthew Day for assistance reconstructing vanilla bean harvesting and curing information in Costa Rica. 

Belsinger, Susan. 2005. not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes. Brookeville, Maryland: Herbspirit.

Gargiullo, Margaret, Magnuson, Barbara and Kimball, Larry. 2008. A Field Guide to Plants of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical Publications.

Laws, Bill. 2010. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books. 

Rain, Patricia. 2004. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance. New York: Philip Lief Group, Inc.

https://www.vanillaqueen.com

https://www.rainforestspices.com/farm-tour/

https://www.rainforestspices.com/learn-about-vanilla/

http://www.srl.caltech.edu/personnel/krubal/rainforest/Edit560s6/www/plants/epiphytes.html


1-Susan BelsingerSusan 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

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– Incredible Edibles: Flowers in the Kitchen

HSA Webinar– Incredible Edibles: Flowers in the Kitchen

By Jen Munson, Education Chair, The Herb Society of America

Did you know many herb flowers are also edible? Experience for yourself the dimension that flowers can add to your meals. To start with, flowers of edible herbs are consumable. They offer the same flavor as the other parts of the plant but generally are a bit milder. Learn about herb and other tasty flowers that are safe to eat by signing up for HSA’s webinar, 1 p.m. Eastern, July 25, 2019, when Honorary President Susan Belsinger will wow attendees with Incredible Edibles: Flowers in the Kitchen. To sign up for this webinar click here. It’s the perfect time to surprise family and friends by throwing some edible flowers into your next summer dish.

matricaria-discoidea-846636_1920Webinars are free to members and $5 for non-members. As an added incentive join HSA on or before August 8th and your webinar registration will be applied to your membership. Can’t make the date? Register anyway as recorded webinars are sent to all registrants once available.

One of my favorite edible flowers is pineapple weed, Matricaria discoidea. This lesser-known plant surprises folks with its mild, pineapple aroma and taste. Pineapple weed, aka wild chamomile, is a native plant that can be found in compacted poor soil. The shortness of the plant makes it easily overlooked; however, once you realize that it emits a light pineapple scent and has an equally refreshing pineapple taste you will be on the hunt for it. It’s best used fresh in teas but the following recipe makes a nice alternative use.

Pineapple Weed / Zucchini Bread

2 eggs
1 cup mild vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup grated zucchini
¾ cup fresh ground pineapple weed
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease loaf pan.
2. In large mixing bowl, beat eggs until foamy.
3. Stir in oil, sugar, zucchini, pineapple weed, and vanilla.
4. In separate bowl mix dry ingredients.
5. Blend dry ingredients into pineapple weed mixture.
6. Pour into greased loaf pan, and bake 1 hour or until inserted knife is removed cleanly.