20 September 2007
Vanilla trip begins
SAMBAVA, MADAGASCAR -- Dear Fam: I’m up in northeast Madagascar, the world’s best region for growing vanilla. When you walk down the streets in 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 the concrete bunkers where workers sort dried beans with the speed and precision of Vegas card dealers. They put beans in various tubs and piles, corresponding to a number of categories: length, color, moisture, weight, texture and, above all, smell. The smell was one of the things that’s surprised me the most about vanilla production … because it’s grows. Opening a bottle of McCormick’s vanilla extract makes you think of cookies and ice cream and summer and such. Dried vanilla smells like raisins. Maybe caramel. And both are kind of alcoholic-moldy.
Once the vanilla is properly dried and sorted (that takes nine months) then it is exported for the most part, to you in the U.S. People here don’t use the stuff.
Wishing you love from a Chinese restaurant that smells like caramel raisins. JOHN