If you travel deep down southern Belize, just past Golden Stream, there is a magical place called the Belize Spice Farm and Botanical Gardens. This farm is the life work of Dr Andrews, a medical specialist of Indian descent, who lived and worked a long time in the USA. Also I understand he is a genius Doctor, his passion seems in the botanical field and especially in growing spices.
Walking around his property almost makes you feel you’re in another part of the world. I don’t know of another place in Belize or Central America like this. Wonderful flavorful spices like peppercorns, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, nutmeg, and last but not least, vanilla, are grown on a well manicured 500 acres.
Peppercorns are native to India and grown on a vine. You can see the attention to detail and love given to the plants at the spice farm. The pepper plant fruits look almost like a miniature grape bunch. Mostly they are harvested while still green in order to make black pepper. I personally love the flavour of the fresh green pepper corn; great in a curry dish or in a pepper sauce with a good steak.
Black pepper is made by drying the green peppers in a ‘dry house’. Most people assume that white pepper and black pepper actually come from 2 varieties of plants. However white pepper comes from the riper berries, soaked in water overnight where afterwards the outer skin is removed, leaving the inner white part of the fruit. Thus, white pepper is just the seed of the peppercorn compared to black pepper which is the entire peppercorn.
Nutmeg is probably the most machoof all spices, first of all because of the very outspoken and strong taste of the nutmeg nut. Secondly there has to be 1 male tree surrounded by 18 female trees in order to get proper pollination to produce the fruits. If there is such a thing like reincarnation, I want to come back as a male nutmeg tree in my next life!
Nutmeg is also a ‘happy hour’ fruit, you get a 2 for 1 deal.
The nut itself is surrounded by a natural little net which is the mace. Mace is a pleasing but subtle flavour enhancer; great for chicken stocks or poultry dishes. Nutmeg itself has a much more robust flavour, which goes well with red meats and game dishes.
Tumeric and ginger are both roots of an evergreen plant, which get harvested once a year. Apart from being very flavourful in outspoken savors, they also seem to have a great medicinal value. You can’t make a great curry dish without either of them.
I was surprised to learn that Cardamom is also part of the ginger family. I always assumed, don’t ask me why, that cardamom grew on a bushy tree. The tiny cardamom seeds have a very outspoken flavour that is often used in pastries and baked goods. I like to use it in several sauces. Cardamon is, after saffron, the most expensive spice in the world but you just need a little bit in daily use.
The queen of all spices is vanilla.
Vanilla is also a very luxurious and costly spice. This is because there is no alternative to hand pollination or hand harvesting. Vanilla is a vine and it is the only edible member of the orchid family. There are rows and rows of it growing at the spice farm and they are being very well taken care of.
The vanilla pod, almost looks like a little green bean when ripening and has no smell when harvested. It turns black and gains its’ famous smell only after it has been properly dried.
There lingers a very exotic almost magical smell in the dry house, which is nothing more than a wooden shack with a tin roof where a smouldering wood fire adds additional heat and flavour. The delicate aroma of the drying pepper berries, cardamom, nutmeg, vanilla, and cinnamon, combined with the subtle wood smoke remind me of fairylike stories of 1001 nights.
If you ever head down south, I strongly advise you to make a stop at the Belize Spice Farm and Botanical Gardens. For some it is a long drive but very rewarding in the end.