Garden Tour Tuesday: Costa Rica's Villa Vanilla.

I'm nursing a bit of the blues today.

Summer's over. The kids are back in school.

How did that happen? Wasn't it just yesterday that those 13 weeks of summer vacation stretched before us like an endless promise of relaxation and fun? Empty days, waiting to be filled by our whims...

Of course, that never really happens here. Riding, camps, projects, and suddenly--poof! Backpacks are filled, lunches packed, and the house is too quiet.

We even forgot to plan our vacation. Well, that's not really true. We'd been talking about it, checking flights, hoping the prices would drop so that we could visit Peter's sister in Malta.

But when it became painfully clear that we wouldn't find tickets under $2000--each--we booked a trip: Costa Rica.

Best Plan B vacation ever.

I've always wanted to visit Costa Rica. More than a decade ago, a friend shared stories over lunch about her visit to Costa Rica. Hiking in the rainforest. Kayaking with crocodiles. Whale watching in the Pacific. Since then, Costa Rica rose to the top of my bucket list. Add in the predominately promoted eco-tourism, abundant wildlife, lush landscapes and beautiful beaches, and every family members' desires could be met.

I just never imagined we'd book a last minute vacation there this year.

I'm ready to return. Anyone need a tour guide?

There's so much I want to share with you about Costa Rica. Today, I thought I'd tell you about one of my favorite places we visited. It's a gardener's mecca:

Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation.

I must admit, this tour was a hard sell for the kids. After all, while they respect my gardening obsession, they really didn't look forward to "wasting time" looking at plants. They'd much rather chase monkeys or grab geckos.

Still, the family indulged me, and we headed out over bumpy roads, past palm tree plantations, to the privately owned spice plantation.

It was phenomenal.

Our tour began in the processing shed, where our guide, Giselle, showed us the variety of spices grown on the plantation.

From common oregano drying in the sun... the more exotic cacao, vanilla, and ceylon cinnamon, it quickly became obvious that this small operation is a powerhouse of spice knowledge. Giselle presented an overview of how each spice is grown and processed, as well as the medicinal and health benefits of the various products.

Of course, the plantation's namesake is the star of the show. Vanilla planifolia (Fragrans) is the world's only edible orchid. Grown with a host tree that provides support and shade, the vining orchid can reach heights of 50 feet, if left unattended. Three years after planting, the orchid is established and ready to produce fruit. The vine blooms for only two months of the year, and each bloom lasts just one day. Each flower requires time-consuming hand-pollination, ensuring the opportunity to produce a vanilla bean is not missed. Within five to eight days, a small pod forms, but the bean requires seven to eight months of growth before it's ready to harvest.

Spice growing is an exercise in patience. While some herbs, like oregano or mint, mature in one season and are easily processed, most of the valuable crops of Villa Vanilla require long growing seasons--and even longer processing times. Newly harvested, green vanilla beans are flavorless. Only through a careful curing process (called the "Bourbon method") is the vanillin, which gives vanilla its distinctive flavor, produced. Pods are kept warm and slowly dried for three to four months, turning a rich, dark brown. Our guide informed us that curing vanilla is similar to aging wine--the longer the vanilla pod is allowed to cure, the more perfect the flavor.

Ceylon cinnamon, too, isn't a quick cash crop. Each tree grows for eight to ten years, when it is then harvested, the outer bark stripped from the log, and the inner bark retained as the spice. Ceylon cinnamon is found in gourmet shops. The sticks and powder we typically find in grocery stores, however, is cassia cinnamon. What's the difference between the two cinnamons? Not only are they harvested from different trees, ceylon is lighter, both in color and flavor, and has a slightly sweeter, brighter flavor. Cassia, which is grown in Indonesia and China, among other countries, is hotter and contains a higher coumarin content--a naturally occurring toxin that potentially can lead to liver damage. In small doses, cassia is fine. However, when we came home from our trip and looked at the cinnamon capsules Peter takes to help reduce his blood glucose levels, we found that the capsules contained cassia cinnamon.

He stopped taking them.

Because Villa Vanilla promotes sustainability, I had to ask: what happens to the rest of the tree once the bark is harvested? Simple.

It becomes delicious-smelling firewood, as you can see in the background.

Villa Vanilla didn't begin its journey producing a multitude of products. In fact, owner Henry Karczynski launched his farm in 1987 as a monoculture--strictly focused on growing only vanilla. However, after several years of crop-decimating, soil drenching hurricanes, Henry realized he needed to rethink his strategy. He studied biodynamics, working to rebuild soil health. He learned how plants and organisms work together to survive and thrive. Henry expanded his outlook, planting ornamental plants side-by-side with crops to attract beneficial insects and correct soil imbalances. Fruit trees, medicinal plants, cacao, and other plants now grow along with the vanilla, providing a stunning sensory tour through the plantation--and a healthy, productive farm.

Our tour through the plantation ignited the plant-geek passion in me.

I made lists of plants to add to our garden, completely ignoring the fact that we're zone 7b--and the gorgeous gingers, vines, and bromeliads are tropical. But that's what a greenhouse is for, right?!

I would die to have this in our backyard. Gorgeous!

After wandering among the plantings, Giselle and her son led us to a building for a tasting of treats created with the plantations' spices.

(The kids noticeably perked up with the promise of food!)

Vanilla cheesecake.

Chilled cinnamon tea.

Mangosteen. (I'd never heard of it--let alone tasted it--before!)

Vanilla ice cream over a chocolate mini-cake.

Just-harvested star fruit.

Hot chocolate, with a chocolate chip cookie. (Honestly, it was too hot to enjoy hot chocolate. It was delicious, but we were in a jungle, after all.)

And the view from our tasting? Equally delicious.

Of course, the tour ended in the plantation spice shop, where I purchased a few goodies for home.

In fact, I used one of my treasured vanilla beans to make this:

Because I think everyone needs a little treat to start off the school year (whether you have kids in school or not, it's still a good excuse for a celebration), I thought I'd share the recipe. Hope you enjoy!

Vanilla Bean Cheesecake

2 cups crushed graham crackers
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

1 8-10" vanilla bean (or 2 smaller beans), split lengthwise, seed "caviar" scraped
2 pounds cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1-1/2 cups white sugar
6 eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup sour cream
1/2 cup heavy cream


  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Coat the inside of a 10-inch springform pan with butter.
  2. Using a fork, mix together the graham cracker crumbs, sugar, butter, and vanilla in a bowl. Press the crumb mixture firmly into the bottom and up the sides of the springform pan.
  3. Place the softened cream cheese and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer. Set mixer on medium speed, and beat until well blended. Beat in the eggs one at a time until well combined.
  4. Add the vanilla bean seeds, vanilla extract, sour cream, and heavy cream. Beat mixture on medium-high speed for about 2 minutes until smooth.
  5. Pour the mixture into the springform pan, covering the crust. Reserve 1-2 inches from the top for the filling to expand. (You will have leftover filling that you can use to make cupcakes, if you like.)
  6. Place the cheesecake onto the oven's middle rack. Bake 1 hour, 15 minutes, until a knife inserted into the cheesecake comes out clean.
  7. Remove cheesecake and allow to cool. Cover and refrigerate for several hours before serving.
  8. Enjoy! (I served ours with strawberry sauce drizzled on top. Yum!)

What's your favorite spice to use when cooking?



P.S. In case you plan a trip to Costa Rica, Villa Vanilla is located in Villanueva, not far from Manuel Antonio. You can find more information about the plantation tours here.