Taste: Madagascar's Vanilla

Why is the concierge looking at me with her head cocked and eyes squinted? I'm in Madagascar, home to some of the most sought-after vanilla beans on earth, so my inquiry about where to buy two pounds worth should not have come as a surprise -- nor should my desire to smuggle it back to my California kitchen. I've had enough of paying $12.50 to my local grocer for a single, sickly, dried-up bean. I am not leaving the Land of Vanilla without at least a kilo of the intoxicating, aromatic pods. I will duct-tape it to my husband's thighs if necessary.

Finding vanilla is not going to be easy; almost all of it is spoken for by international spice companies. But I am an addict; I can already taste the dozens of sauces, curries and desserts that my purchase will enhance.

As we walk down a gritty, jacaranda-lined street in Antananarivo in search of my fix, hawkers aggressively thrust cartons of Marlboros in our faces. John gives me a pleading look, asking why we're in the capital rather than in the luxuriant primal jungles where just yesterday soft, curious lemurs sat on our shoulders and licked our fingers.

I shoot him a reassuring look: This is all worth it to score one of the most popular flavorings anywhere, right at its source. An estimated 75 percent of the world's vanilla supply comes from islands off the coast of Africa, including Madagascar, due to the perfect convergence of conducive climate and soil with cheap labor and land. So why can't we find any? Perhaps my rusty French has hindered this quest. (I did, after all, mistakenly ask the concierge to put our valuables in the hotel's hairdresser.)

"Why are you so obsessed with it?" John asks. Hey, I'm not the only one -- farmers have been murdered for a few pounds of their precious crop. According to the world's foremost expert, "Vanilla Queen" Patricia Rain, who has written three books on the subject : "It's very easy to become addicted. Actually, we're hard-wired to like it. Babies recognize the aroma as early as 17 weeks because there's a component in a mother's milk that smells like vanilla."

It's also, purportedly, an aphrodisiac. John arches his eyebrows at me. Little does he know that Madagascar's vanilla is considered the most potent on earth, which explains its high demand. The Malagasy were the first to commercially produce it in 1924 and have been perfecting their crops ever since. As a result, these beans have the highest concentration of vanillin, the crystalline component that gives the bean its flavor.

Adding to its intrigue, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive crops. Growers in Madagascar first have to hand- pollinate vanilla orchids, wait seven to 10 months for the fruit to develop and mature, then gently hand-harvest the beans. After that, the pods begin a four- to five-month-long curing process, which involves being dried in the tropical sun during the day and wrapped in straw or blankets at night to sweat.

We spend three hours on the street engulfed in leaded-gas fumes before a twitchy Malagasy tout in a faded military jacket thrusts a moist bag under my nose. As I pull back reflexively, an unmistakable, buttery-creamy scent over- whelms my senses. My eyes bulge. "Combien? Combien? How much?" I ask with as much calm as I can muster, which is to say: none at all. In a frenzy I purchase about two pounds of vanilla for $12, enough for roughly 80 gallons of ice cream.

Back in the safety of our hotel room, I giddily open the baggie and take out the damp brown beans, which feel like fruit leather and carry a powerful, perfumed scent -- I'm buzzed just whiffing it.

Inspecting the pods, I notice that each features a tiny, identical pattern of pinpricks: a brand imprinted by a farmer hoping to deter thieves. Oh, God, were mine stolen? My heart races; my stomach flips. I lock our door and nervously devise a plan to smuggle my contraband past U.S. Customs. Seeing as shipments from Madagascar are practically always searched (and seized), I scrap Plan A.

Uninterested, John absorbs himself in a book about Australia, the next stop on our trip. "Why not stash it in a kangaroo's pouch?" he asks with a laugh.

"Boy, you're really, really ..." I stop myself. An idea creeps out of his ridicule. "Brilliant! You're a genius!"

To avoid self-incrimination, let's pretend you were in my situation. Hypothetically, I suppose you could fly to a country that allows vanilla imports: say, Australia. Then you could seal your stash within 14 layers of plastic bags, wipe your fingerprints off the package, label it "books" and ship it to a friend in the U.S. Of course, you could never admit doing this or you'd be arrested.

Back home, you'd toast your spouse with a martini featuring a vanilla-bean swizzle stick. Rainforest breezes would blow through your memory as homemade vanilla-bean ice cream melted on your tongue, the silky texture as smooth as lemur fur. Tasting your luscious handmade chocolate laced with a hint of vanilla, you'd sigh and realize that life wouldn't be quite so sweet without my vanilla … I mean your vanilla. Hypothetically speaking.

Cimeron Morrissey, back from a recent around-the-world adventure, has discovered more than 45 uses for fresh vanilla.