Few industries have created--and destroyed--as many fortunes as the spice trade. Venice built its Renaissance splendor with riches from the sale of black pepper, and it was the quest for spices, not gold, that launched fleets of explorers toward the New World. The Portuguese led the pepper trade on India's Malabar Coast, the Dutch East India Company controlled Indonesian cloves, and the Spanish had the monopoly on New World vanilla. The French, meanwhile, eased their dependence on foreign spices by developing plantations in their Indian Ocean colonies, including Madagascar, which lies 250 miles off the coast of Mozambique. The island yielded excellent cloves, black pepper and nutmeg, but it was the cultivation of superb vanilla, introduced to Madagascar's fertile red soil in the mid-19th century, that secured the island's reputation as one of the world's great spice centers.
To celebrate five Madagascan prizes--black pepper, red chiles, cloves, ginger and vanilla--we offer a profile of each one, plus innovative dishes that highlight their unique flavors, from Marcia Kiesel of FOOD & WINE'S test kitchen.
Madagascar's black pepper is grown on plantations along the eastern coast as well as on small family plots all over the island. The peppercorn is a drupe (a stone fruit, like a cherry or an olive, with a fleshy layer and an outer skin) and is harvested at various stages of development. Peppercorns can be picked when they're green and the pulp still has an aromatic, slightly eucalyptus-like quality. Green peppercorns spoil quickly, so they are usually sold preserved in vinegar or brine, or dried. When peppercorns are slightly riper but still green, they are picked and cured until they reach the dark brown or black color typical of black peppercorns. Milder white pepper, often used in light-colored sauces, is produced by allowing peppercorns to ripen fully, then washing off the flesh to expose the pale central seed. Because whole dried peppercorns keep well, while their oils evaporate quickly after grinding, black pepper should always be ground fresh. For a more robust flavor, try crushing the corns coarsely under a heavy skillet or with the flat side of a chef's knife instead of using a mill.
Hot capsicum chile peppers were probably introduced to Africa by Portuguese slave traders, who brought them from Brazil. The traders raided different tribes along the African coast and furthered the spread of chiles as they traveled. Today, specialized chile pastes are found in most regions of the continent, from the harissa of North Africa to the pili-pili of Mozambique. On Madagascar, some meals are accompanied by sakay, a fiery mash of dried red chiles, garlic and ginger. Dried chiles, like dried herbs, have a more concentrated and complex flavor than fresh ones. When buying them, look for brilliantly or deeply colored peppers that are intact (broken chiles quickly lose their aromatic oils), free of spotting and somewhat pliable (they should feel like slightly stiff fruit leather). If kept in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, dried chiles should keep their flavor for as long as six months. Generally, they should be roasted in a skillet or in the oven, then chopped or used whole.
In the 18th century, Holland had such a fiercely guarded monopoly on the clove trade that the government made growing or selling the spice outside its colony of Amboina, in Indonesia, a crime punishable by death. But French merchants smuggled seedlings out and planted them in several African colonies: Madagascar's east coast still flushes crimson when the clove trees flower. Workers harvest the buds just as they develop a pink blush, then dry them. Good cloves are oily and strong, and it's easy to add too many to a dish. But used judiciously, the spice can add a light sweetness to game and fruit. For centuries, the high cost of cloves in the West meant cooks reserved them for special occasions: For many people, the scent still triggers Christmas memories of spiced ham and mulled wine.
Ginger made its way to Madagascar from Asia and has become a common ingredient in the country's somewhat Malaysian-style curries and stews. Its palate-cleansing bite comes from zingerone, a substance chemically similar to piperine, which gives black pepper its kick. This pungency brightens ingredients that have unassertive flavors, such as chicken and pork. Ginger also complements the rich, sweet, spicy tastes of tropical foods like citrus fruits, curry pastes, pickles and chutneys. Young ginger has delicate, silvery skin with occasional pink shoots and a mildness that allows it to be used unpeeled, almost as a vegetable, in stir-fries. As ginger ages, its flavor grows more intense and piquant, and its texture becomes fibrous. That's why mature peeled ginger is often grated, minced or juiced. Look for ginger that is smooth-skinned, heavy and firm, since ginger that feels light or has soft spots may be dried out or less than fresh.
Vanilla accounts for almost 20 percent of Madagascar's exports, but the bean's economic strength belies the delicacy of the flower that produces it. Each vanilla orchid blossoms for only a few hours and must be pollinated by hand during that time. The bean is odorless when harvested, becoming fragrant only after it has been fermented and dried. This complex process makes vanilla the second-most expensive spice in the world (after saffron). Vanilla can enhance the sweetness of shellfish and balance chocolate's astringency; its floral quality complements fruit and custards. When buying vanilla, look for oily, supple, dark brown or black beans; a white film signifies exceptional quality. To store the beans, wrap them in wax paper, then in a plastic bag, and place the bag in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. The beans are remarkably potent; even after they have been used, they can be rinsed, dried and buried in a sealed jar of sugar to flavor it.
Text by Jonathan Hayes, who frequently writes about food and travel.