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.