The country is still a blur of scents and colors that fills my head. The scents remain vivid in my memory—the steamy perfume of ylang ylang blossoms through the taxi window as we rattle down a dark bumpy road, the sweet fragrance of cured vanilla beans that's so thick and heady that I crouch down as though to tie my shoe, too dizzy to stand.
It takes a couple flights to get to Madagascar from Boston, a quick one to Paris and a long one to the capital, Antananarivo. It's a long way to go for a place that's not a piece of cake to visit, so a lot of the folks we talked to agree on one thing—it's usually something specific that draws people to the country. For some it's the rich biodiversity (the lemurs!) for others, it's service, such as the US Peace Corps.
Spices are certainly what drove me to travel to Madagascar, accompanied by my adventure-addicted husband, but the Peace Corps played a role too. My friend Matt (a Boston native) served in the Peace Corps in the Sava region, one of the largest vanilla producing areas of the country. While he completed his service a few years ago, he continues to return to the country to work with vanilla farmers, and has even launched his own vanilla importing business. So needless to say we've talked a lot of vanilla.
It's thanks to Matt that my husband Mark and I got to connect to a small vanilla company where we could learn first hand about this valuable spice. I'll be honest—I spent a lot of time researching this particular entry and trying to write about the vanilla industry in a succinct way. Not an easy task. Not only is the industry complex, but also there are a lot of pieces related to poverty and global economics that are just plain depressing (though important, so please see the end note). Instead of an academic post on the vanilla industry I've chosen to share a few spice highlights. And I hope that you'll join us at the shop next month for our "Madagascar Night" where you can learn a lot more and even contribute to a Malagasy charity we've chosen to support!
Ylang ylang Canaga odorata
The island of Nosy Be in Northwest Madagascar is home to some of the largest production of this beautiful green-yellow flower. The fragrance is similar to jasmine—intensely floral, rich and creamy. The flowers are large - the size of a lime - and they grow on thick, craggy branches. They are harvested almost exclusively by women who start before dawn and pick until noon. While prized in the perfume industry (it's in the famous Chanel No. 5), it's used in food too. Jeni's ice-cream has a fennel and ylang ylang flavor! We use this intoxicating flower in our blend Fleur Spice.
Baie Rose Schinus terebinthifolius (seen above)
We took a seven-hour overland trip to get from West Madagascar to the very northern tip of the country, watching the landscape change from lush cacao and coffee farms to dry, arid landscapes where water is scarce but the chilies are hot. Our guide Angelina was eager to help me with my "spicy business" as he called it, and pointed out lots of plants along the way, including Baie rose, also known as pink pepper. The pink berries, when dried, look a lot like peppercorns, though the plant is unrelated to black pepper. The flavor is indeed a little peppery, with distinct floral and citrus notes. This particular spicy business stop was accompanied by this glamorous chameleon.
Vanilla Vanilla planifolia
Vanilla is a complex crop—a flavor packed "bean" or fruit that comes from an orchid. Madagascar vanilla, known as "Bourbon vanilla" named from the nearby island of Reunion (île Bourbon) was introduced from the Americas in the early nineteenth century. The photo above, of green vanilla on the vine, was taken in the forest, where a lot of farmers' grow their vanilla in harmony with other plants. And while it grows all year round, there are distinct cycles for the commercial crop. When we visited in January it was the 'cured' or black vanilla season, which is to say, sale time. The price of vanilla is the highest it's been in a long time (running at $400/KG this year versus $50/KG in 2010), due not only to supply and demand issues, but also to quality problems that reach back to issues with production (see this article in the Seattle Times from last year). While problems abound, the exporting company we visited, owned and run by a friend of Matt named Matthieu, is an exemplary operation that offers great working conditions and sustainably sourced vanilla. The women sorting vanilla were smiling and laughing for our entire visit, and unlike me the strong scent didn't make them dizzy!
****Join us for Madagascar Night!
When: Thursday, March 23rd from 7-9pm
Where: Curio Spice shop, 2265 Mass Ave, Cambridge MA 02140
What: An evening to learn about Madagascar spices and how to cook with them. Matt Amato will join us to share his experiences working with vanilla farmers, and you'll take home recipes and your own vial of vanilla beans. 30% of your ticket purchase (as well as any Malagasy souvenirs you choose to purchase) will benefit Macolline, a non-profit working to protect the Madagascar forest and generate jobs in the region we source vanilla.
RESERVE: Limited space! The cost is $25 per person and includes a tasting of dishes made with Malagasy spices as well as a vial of vanilla beans to take home. Please call the shop during open hours to reserve your spot! 617-945-1888
As a Public Benefit Corporation, Curio's mission is to have a positive material impact on both our local community as well as the countries where we source. In Madagascar, climate change and other factors contribute to severe poverty and deforestation throughout the country, including the area where we source vanilla. Due to the complexity of the issues, vanilla farmers still struggle to survive, even despite the high demand and price of vanilla. The Macolline Protection Association is working to protect valuable forest land, plant trees and provide education and jobs in the same area where we source vanilla. We believe that helping in these micro-areas is an important piece of the puzzle. Thanks for being a part of it!