PHOTOS BY BETTY LIU
Perhaps no one enjoys winter more than Meagan MacNeill, founder of the Nashoba Valley Extract Co. and baker extraordinaire. Since 2012, MacNeill has used the highest-quality ingredients to develop a variety of homemade extracts out of her kitchen in Stow, MA. Her most loyal customers affectionately refer to her elixirs as their “secret ingredients” because of the distinctively rich flavors they bring to baked goods, pastries, and drinks alike.
At Newton North High School, MacNeill dreamed of going on to culinary arts school, but ended up earning a degree in guidance counseling and becoming a stay-at-home mother of three. Her life path may have changed, but her passion for cooking never abandoned her. “All of a sudden I was home with young children and desperately missing an outlet for my creative side. I realized that experimenting with recipes and ingredients had always been my way of expressing myself and I began to bake during any free time that I had," says MacNeill. Nearly all her baking recipes, however, called for vanilla extract and, after extensive research, Meagan realized she could create her own. “As I began playing around with recipes using different vanilla beans, the final products were incredible compared to what I was getting from the grocery shelves. The tastes and smells hit you in powerful and delicious ways, “she says. The seed for the Nashoba Valley Extract Co. had been planted.
Many people do not know exactly how vanilla extract is produced. It all starts with vanilla beans, the product of hand-pollinated orchid vines grown only in warm, humid climates such as Madagascar, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. The vanilla seed pods must stay on the vines for up to nine months before being harvested, and then they go through another five to eight month process of curing and drying before they are ready for use. The beans have varying flavors based on their regions of origin and how they are managed and cured. Vanilla extract is produced by then submerging the cured vanilla pods in alcohol for six to eight weeks. The time and resources involved in production make vanilla one of the most costly spices in the world.
To create her most popular extracts—Bourbon vanilla, Tahitian vanilla, and her proprietary blend which is a mixture of these two—MacNeill tested a variety of vanilla beans from differing parts of the globe. In the end, she chose to use beans grown in Madagascar. “I simply liked the taste of the Madagascar beans better and I was able to source them from environmentally friendly, responsible companies. This was very important to me, “she says. Once procured, she takes the dried vanilla pods and places them in high-quality vodka in glass containers for six weeks. Her proprietary blend is aged in oak barrels, not glass, which gives it a deep, woody flavor. The final product is poured by hand into amber glass bottles complete with Nashoba Valley Extract Co.’s homey, old-fashioned logo.
After going through a lengthy process to attain her wholesale state license and town license to sell directly to consumers, and armed with a product that she was proud of and confident in, MacNeill began introducing Nashoba Valley Extract Co. to the public. Her initial targets were local farmers markets and craft fairs, sites where she can still be found most weekends throughout the year. “I love being a part of the farmers market community here in New England. The people are wonderful and always in great spirits,” she says. “They are generally very family friendly and I often bring along my children to help. It is a great way for them to get involved and learn about sales and business. They are my best salespeople—always asking customers to smell the products and taste my samples.” Meagan’s stand displays her expanding product line which includes her popular vanilla extracts, as well as lemon, anise, cocoa, and expresso extracts, Bourbon vanilla-infused sugar, hot cocoa, and a variety of artfully packaged gift sets. “People are pulled in by the uniqueness of the products. It is not often that one sees homemade extracts for sale. I tend to close the sales, however, with my food samples. My simple vanilla cookies really show off the flavor of my proprietary blend and are always a sure hit,” she adds.
Over the last several years, Nashoba Valley Extract Co. has become a staple at the Maynard and Natick farmers markets, but recently the company’s products have become more prominent in specialty stores across the region. They can now be purchased at Volante Farms in Needham, Debra’s Natural Gourmet in Concord, and Formaggio Kitchen South End in Boston.
With sales on the rise, now surpassing over 500 bottles per year, and a full-schedule of farmers markets (and children’s soccer games) ahead of her, MacNeill continues to invent and perfect new products. “I am constantly thinking of tastes to create and, at the moment, I am having fun with a new extract called, “Flowers of Sicily,” which brings together citrus, vanilla, and floral flavors,” she says almost dreamily. “But I am also thinking of expanding into spice rubs and dip mixes. Lately, I have even started selling herbs from my garden at my stand.”
Potential new tastes and textures aside, Meagan MacNeill is currently focused on the winter season when endless cookies and cakes are prepared for holiday gatherings and to keep spirits up against the harsh outdoor elements. Given that her products naturally lend themselves to bringing families and loved ones together, Meagan has every reason to be optimistic about her company’s outlook. The Nashoba Valley Extract Co. seems destined for an uptick in sales in the short run, results which Meagan hopes will translate into many seasons of long term success.
Available online at nashobavalleyextractco.com and at retail stores throughout the area.
Casey Hassenstein is a free-lance writer based in Brookline, MA. You can read more of her writing at kitchentablerwriter.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.