Costa Rica

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Website: http://www.rainforestspices.com
Vanilla beans reviewed: Gourmet #1,#2, & Grade #3.
Cost: Rainforestspices.com sent samples for the site.

Villa Vanilla is a biodynamic farm and tourist destination in Costa Rica. Their single-source, organic vanilla beans are sold farm-direct from the Rainforestspices.com website. Several farm-direct spices are available, including vanilla beans, vanilla extract, and cinnamon.

The vanilla beans are grown biodynamically, going way beyond traditional organic farming. The vanilla plantation is conceived as sustainable a system of different plants and animals. The diversity of this system prevents diseases and land use problems associated with single-crop agriculture. According to my research, Villa Vanilla is the only Demeter certified biodynamic vanilla farm in the world.

Henry at Villa Vanilla/Rainforestspices.com sent this great description of the vanilla operation:

I have been in vanilla production for 21 years and I was Frontier’s Natural Products organic supplier in the 90′s. A blight affected the vanilla production in mid-late 90′s and I discovered biodynamic cultural practices as a remedy to continue growing vanilla. My farm is the first Demeter certified biodynamic farm in Central America and I have since worked in vanilla in Mexico, El Salvador, Hawaii, Madagascar and Costa Rica.

The farm is located close to Manuel Antonio National Park, a major tourist destination. I host students and tourists for our educational tour “Spices, Gardens & more…” and successfully sell our spices at retail prices at our well known “Spice Shoppe”.

You can visit Villa Vanilla in Costa Rica for a farm tour, or stay in one of two cabins. Adventurous student eco-tourists can work on the vanilla farm for a week, and learn about sustainable agriculture. Accommodation, tour, and shop information are available on the website.

Villa Vanilla sent three samples of biodynamic vanilla beans. The beans arrived quickly from Costa Rica, wrapped in wax paper and plastic. Shipping is very reasonable at $7 per pound.

Villa Vanilla / Rainforestspices.com Costa Rica Planifolia Gourmet #1: 8 1/2 to 10 inches ($92 per pound)
These are giant vanilla beans, the biggest on the site (as of August 2008). It’s even more amazing that this is a common size from the plantation, not just a sample of exceptionally large vanilla beans. The growing conditions at Villa Vanilla must be exceptional to grow vanilla like this. Not only are the pods long, they are very wide and quite plump. Rainforestspices.com calls these “Gourmet #1″, which I would translate to “Grade A, long”.

The pod is soft, supple, and black to very dark brown in color. The skin is mildly shiny and waxy, but not greasy — this vanilla has not been vacuum packaged. The beans are flexible and beautiful.

Several beans have visible oil in the caviar when cut open, the aroma is pleasant. The volume of crumbly caviar is easily equivalent to the amount in 4 or more average size vanilla beans.

Villa Vanilla / Rainforestspices.com Costa Rica Planifolia Gourmet #2: 6 1/2 to 8 inches ($82 per 16 oz)
Rainforestspices.com calls these “Gourmet #2″, which I would translate to “Grade A, mixed/medium lengths”. The size varies a bit — I tried to show the range of sizes in the picture.

These are very similar to the longer Gourmet #1 vanilla, but shorter and thinner. The skin is soft and supple. The color is black to very dark brown.

Several beans have split ends. Split ends are not necessarily bad — this is notable because none of the Gourmet #1 or Grade #3 beans have split ends.

The aroma is similar to the longer variety. The caviar is airy and light, with a moderate yield.

Villa Vanilla / Rainforestspices.com Costa Rica Planifolia Grade #3: 5-6 inches, splits, curls ($70 per 16 oz)
These are shorter, dryer vanilla beans. They are listed as “splits and cuts”, though none of the sample beans were broken or otherwise damaged — just dryer. I believe they are the equivalent of “grade B” (extract) beans, but they are surprisingly easy to cut — easier than most extract beans. According to Henry, these have 20-25% moisture to ensure against mold. I would definitely not call them grade C or D (splits and cuts), as the name suggests.

The grade #3 vanilla beans are somewhat flexible, and brown to brown-red in color.

Despite being dry outside, the pods are bursting with an above-average yield of caviar for their size. Many have gooey, oily caviar. Overall, the caviar was moist and crumbly like wet sand. The aroma compares to the other grades.

This is very exciting, unique vanilla — I’m really glad to add it to the website. If you would like to visit a biodynanic, sustainable vanilla plantation and farm, then check out the agro/eco tours and programs offered at Villa Vanilla in Costa Rica. If you are looking for the ultimate in organic vanilla — biodynamic — look no further. I recommend this vanilla to anyone looking for the ultimate organic vanilla products.

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