2000s Archive

Shades of Noir

Originally Published July 2002
Have you wondered why the price of vanilla has skyrocketed? David Karp went to Madagascar to get at the truth.

I stomped on an imaginary brake pedal as my driver swerved violently across the road. A wiry fellow in his forties, Lucien was once again indulging his unnerving habit of gunning our pickup truck straight at pedestrians, yelping obscenities at the women. Meanwhile, an insane disco version of the creaky old heavy-metal warhorse "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" blared from his cassette player as rich orange earth, giant tree ferns, and lush stands of wild ginger flashed by. Then, suddenly, Lucien pulled up, tires screeching, at yet another barrage.

After several days of banging around northeastern Madagascar, I had grown accustomed to these checkpoints, poles lowered across the road and manned by grim-looking soldiers. But each one still made my stomach rise into my throat. And few people would have found my anxiety unreasonable; violence was in the air. Just before I arrived in the country, a mob had hacked two men to death and thrown them into the sea for stealing vanilla. But my worries had nothing to do with civil disturbances or illicit pods; I was upset because I had come halfway around the globe to the world's leading vanilla-growing region only to discover that no one would let me watch the harvest.

I was particularly frustrated because this trip was the culmination of years—decades, if dreaming counts—of meticulous planning. Even as a teenager, I found vanilla especially alluring. The sweet, spicy aroma conjured visions of its source, a paradise of vanilla plantations, dense green jungle, and ring-tailed lemurs leaping through the tree canopy. Little did I imagine that by the time I reached Madagascar, its vanilla industry would be embroiled in crisis, with impoverished peasants grasping at undreamed-of wealth while processors and exporters vied for control of the market and mysterious agents spread fear in the night.

Here, in the nation that typically produces more than half of the world's 2,000-ton vanilla crop, many aspects of its cultivation and production appeared to be off-limits to an American armed with a notepad and a profound curiosity. Lucien managed to get me safely to a major vanilla-processing factory, but once we got past the nasty-looking mastiff patrolling the perimeter of the compound, the visit produced little but a chat with Hervé Lopat, the 85-year-old Chinese patriarch of the business.

Much of what Lopat told me I already knew. Vanilla is the fruit of a tropical climbing orchid native to Mexico and Central America. Aztec emperors drank the spice mixed with chocolate, and the Spanish brought it to Europe, where it became popular as a flavoring, medicine, and aphrodisiac. Since the specific bees and birds that pollinated the fragrant, pale greenish-yellow vanilla flowers existed only in the New World, all supplies came from there until the 1840s, when Edmond Albius, a former slave on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, discovered a practical method of hand pollination. Cultivation on nearby Madagascar soared after its colonization by the French in 1896: Soil and climate conditions are ideal, and there was plenty of cheap land and labor. In the decades before Madagascar gained independence, in 1960, French landowners had developed large vanilla plantations, but small peasant plantings now predominate, often interspersed with bananas, coffee, and cloves.

Lopat did eventually unbend enough to show me a bundle of long, black, glossy beans. Some were frosted with givre, the powdery white crystals of vanillin, the most abundant aromatic compound in vanilla. But the closest I came to actually seeing vanilla beans being cured was a series of paintings depicting the four steps of the process—scalding, sweating, drying, and conditioning—on the padlocked warehouse doors.

Down the road from Lopat's factory, I stopped off at the compound of his archrival, Fayol Makboulhoussen ("Makboul" for short). The buyer and representative for dealers Aust & Hachmann, Makboul was born in Bombay. Vanilla preparers in Madagascar have traditionally been ethnic Chinese (primarily from Canton), but in the last decade men of Indian origin have begun to challenge their supremacy.

Fortyish and affable, with a wheeler-dealer's quickness and a tough glitter in his eyes, Makboul is a significant player, exporting up to 40 tons a year. With an expansive wave of his hand, he showed off his warehouse, where samples of cured vanilla were stacked. "Black" beans—plump, supple, moist, and aromatic—are the highest grade, suitable for use as whole beans in cooking, he explained. "Red" beans, which are drier, thinner, and streaked with reddish brown, may result from the curing of immature beans, or from drying beans more thoroughly. In Europe, glass tubes of black beans account for about half the natural vanilla market, but in the United States more than 90 percent goes for extract and other processed products.

American vanilla manufacturers, Makboul said, sometimes use low-quality but cheap "cuts," or snippets of beans for blending with artificial vanillin. This synthetic substance, made from wood pulp or petrochemical by-products, has a strong but one-dimensional flavor, lacking the hundreds of minor chemical components that contribute a complex, mellow aroma to natural vanilla. Makboul, for his part, blamed Americans for driving up the price of mediocre vanilla and throwing the industry into crisis. "If Americans didn't buy cuts, there would be only good vanilla in Madagascar," he said, showing me what he claimed was one result of the panic: holes in a wall from a shotgun fired by his guard while fending off a robbery attempt.

The vanilla trade has not always been so rough. After independence, the Malagasy state controlled the system, turning a blind eye to corruption and black markets yet maintaining quality standards and managing inventory to minimize price fluctuations. But in the early '90s the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund insisted that the market be liberalized, and all hell broke loose: The market was flooded by decontrolled stocks, prices plunged, and Malagasy farmers neglected their vanilla plantings.

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