Recently, I’ve been on the trail of vanilla, the magical spice that flavours our cakes, custards and ice creams. Along the way, the trail took me to Madagascar, where they produce the finest vanilla in the world. It’s called ‘Bourbon vanilla’, after the former name of nearby Reunion Island.
Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid (vanilla planifolia)? That its flower has to be pollinated by hand in order for the vanilla pod to grow? That the pod must be picked on a particular day of its growth, and then go through various stages of conditioning for almost a year before it is ready to use?
I didn’t know any of this; I didn’t even know what a vanilla pod looked like, but I found out pretty quickly before boarding a plane to Antananarivo (better known as Tana), Madagascar’s crazy capital.
I started tracking down vanilla in the city centre, at the huge Analakely Market, which was teeming with produce, and I went bananas shooting images of the vendors with their artful displays of bell peppers, shredded carrots, shellfish, succulent strawberries and gleaming tangerines. As for vanilla, after a careful look I was able to distinguish top-quality beans (long, slender, dark, glistening) from the cheaper stuff, which was short, stubby, lighter in colour.
I had to be on my toes all the time, because—as just about all Tana’s citizens keep reminding you—this is one dangerous town. Thefts and muggings are regular, which may have something to do with the fact that about half the population have no work or income. Fortunately I emerged unscathed, and was even brave enough to join the crowds at the annual Madagascar Carnival—wow, those Malagasy can dance!
In the kitchens that I visited to see what chefs are doing with vanilla in Tana’s top restaurants these days, it was invariably the top-quality vanilla pods I saw stored in tall glass jars. I got to photograph (and eat!) some amazing dishes, such as chicken escalopes with vanilla sauce and pork and sweet potato with vanilla. And much as I enjoyed these exotic dishes, nothing could beat the vanilla soufflé for its uncompromised vanilla-ness.
Before leaving Tana, I bought a few bunches of vanilla pods to experiment with at home. Now I’m a vanilla addict and each time I head for the kitchen I’m dreaming up new ways of adding it to any dish. Its sweet, creamy and smoky aroma has got me under its spell.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.