07 September 2007

Vanilla beans are just strung-out raisins

[9/7/07 SAMBAVA, Madagascar. Dear Fam: I’m up in northeast Madagascar, the world’s best region for growing vanilla. When you walk down the streets of Sambava and Antalaha, the smell of vanilla drying in the tropical sun hits you with a force strong enough to stain your hair and clothes for the day. The smell isn’t everywhere, it just pops out of the windows of concrete bunkers where workers sort dried beans with the speed and precision of Vegas card dealers. They put beans in various tubs and piles that correspond to important categories for beans: length, color, moisture, weight, texture and – above all – smell. The smell was one of the things that surprised me most about vanilla production … because it’s gross. Opening a bottle of McCormick’s vanilla extract makes you think of cookies and ice cream and summers. Dried vanilla, to me, smells like raisins. Once the vanilla is properly dried and sorted (no easy feat, and one that takes nine months) then it is exported, mostly to the U.S. People don’t use the stuff here. … Wishing you love from a Chinese restaurant (where I’m writing this) that smells like raisins. –JOHN]

(image caption: negative image … beans are black and the tie is usually a palm frond)

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