SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, March 20, 2015 – Sixteen Louisianans from the Louisiana Garden Club Federation tour flew south to Costa Rica to explore cocoa and vanilla, which when combined create chocolate, and coffee.
Near the Pacific coast is the small farm Villa Vanilla, run by Hank Karczynski. Karczynski was born in Germany to Polish parents and raised in Chicago, then settled in Costa Rica. HIs interest in farming came after serving in the Peace Corps.
After two years of hurricanes almost wiped him out in the 1990s, he turned to organic farming and became passionate about biodynamics, an agricultural method whose philosophy is healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people.
Vanilla beans grow on a vine that has wrapped itself around a host tree. It needs plenty of water, which it gets during Costa Rica’s May-to-November rainy season. Cultivating it is labor-intensive, since the plant, a member of the orchid family, must be pollinated by hand.
Plump green pods are dried for several weeks before they become the dark, stiff beans that you can buy. Many of us bought vanilla beans or extract, turmeric and cinnamon at the on-site shop. (You can add vodka to vanilla beans to make vanilla extract.)
Our second lesson on Costa Rica’s crops was at Finca Rosa Blanca, a small (42-acre) coffee plantation near San Jose that grows, washes, dries, roasts and grinds coffee for hotels.
All Costa Rican coffee is hand-picked since ripe red berries are on the same stem as green berries.
At Finca Rosa Blanca it is organically grown, meaning that the trees grow under banana plants and mango, pineapple, poro and lime trees. The banana plants and the fruit trees provide shade, and their leaves are composted for the coffee trees.
An advantage of having banana plants around is that in the rainy season they suck up water and release it in the dry season.
Our guide, Ulises, ripped a piece from a banana plant, rolled it up and squeezed it; huge drops of water fell out.
A side benefit of the variety of trees is that Finca Rosa Blanca is a stopover or home for many birds; we saw a Montezuma oropendula in a poro tree.
The website has a list of 103 birds seen there and some of their photos and calls. Growing in the shade is important for coffee trees because there they grow more slowly than in the sun and have time to pull more nutrients from the soil. The shells get harder, so that they are better for roasting.
The trees we saw produce berries at two years and can live for 50 or 60. In contrast, Ulises said scornfully, Brazilian trees are in the sun, need fertilizers and do not live as long as Costa Rican trees. (As one of our group said, “live fast, die young.”)
Each coffee berry has two beans and mucilage around them that must be washed off, an eight-hour process. The beans dry on outdoor tables for several days, until they are only 10 to 12 percent water, so they do not burst during roasting.
A machine sorts them, and then they are roasted for 50 to 60 minutes at 400 to 500 degrees F; length of roasting time determines whether they produce dark or medium roast coffee.
Both Villa Vanilla and Finca Rosa Blanca offer tours, and the latter also has a restaurant and boutique hotel.
More information is at www.fincarosablanca.com and www.rainforestspices.com.