Intrepid Spice Hunter
Courtesy of Courtney Dunk: www.spicelines.com
(Courtney writes a great blog at the above address. Check it out!)
Sometimes I tell myself if I had it to do all over again, I’d be a spice hunter. The romance, the intrigue, the snakes…
Gerard Vives wrote a long email the other day about his recent escapades in Madagascar. “My métier is sometimes dangerous,” he said. “I’ve had to face wild animals, unpleasant savages, serpents, spiders, big monkeys, etc. in the areas of production, but the one I fear the most is …man. “
Gerard is an intrepid spice hunter and pepper specialist who lives in Marseilles. He is never happier, it seems, than when he’s tracking down one or more of the superb peppercorns for which he’s known-19 different varieties at last count-or when he’s on the trail of some other exotic spice. It’s not much of a stretch to call him the Indiana Jones of the spice trade, a throwback to the wilder, more dangerous days of a profession that’s become a bit sedate in the last century or two.”
Normally Gerard treks through Madagascar’s primeval rain forest to collect rare poivres sauvages, tiny wild peppercorns with a sweet, citrusy heat that had Paris chefs queuing at his door when he first introduced them. He also buys the premium vanilla pods for which this poverty-stricken Indian Ocean island is known.
But this year his timing was off. Cyclone Fanele struck the west coast of Madagascar in the early morning of January 21, just two days after tropical storm Eric swept across the east coast. Together they caused massive flooding, damaged buildings, and left thousands of people stranded.
Gerard was among those who were cut off. Following is my translation of part of his email:
“In Madagascar the cyclones didn’t go directly to Antananarivo [the capital], but to the coast… the region where I had to go. The trail was impassable… the six hour-walk needed to get to the wild pepper area couldn’t be done because the rain was incessant…”
Then came the deadly riots in Antananarivo:
“While spending two weeks in the center of the city, a few meters from the area given over to demonstrations, I watched the anger grow. It was instigated by the mayor of the city who wants to destabilize the president…who has a monopoly on certain vital products, such as milk or rice. Rice is the basis of the Malagasy diet and a sack of rice weighing 25 kilos now costs the equivalent of 35 euros [about $45]…while the average salary is 30 euros!! All the places that were pillaged and wrecked belonged to the president…strange, isn’t it?
“The Malagasy are not naturally violent, but it is easy to stir up starving people. The call for disobedience was made, and then it was impossible to control the protestors. I felt that I was in danger because I was in the middle of everything and the crowd was heedless….”
Over 100 protestors are said to have been killed, including at least 7 gunned down by the police as they stormed the presidential palace. In his email, Gerard confessed, “I was really afraid.”
But he survived it all and is now on his way to Asia, camera man in tow, to do some film segments for French TV, including a piece about a spice farm he is trying to establish in Cambodia and another on star anise, for which he will travel to Guangxi, China.
In the meantime, you can go to his blog where he has posted a few of the 50 vanilla recipes he recently developed, among them an easy one for a fragrant huile de vanille, or vanilla oil. Making spice oils is tricky, the problem being that by the time you’ve infused enough flavor into the oil, bacteria may have started to grow. After a few days at room temperature, you may even see mold covering the spices. This is not a good thing-discard at once.
Gerard, a self taught chef, gets around the problem by warming grape seed oil in a pan, then adding vanilla seeds and pods and letting the mixture steep for a short time to infuse the flavor. He then removes the pods and refrigerates the oil. Grape seed oil’s neutral flavor doesn’t conflict with the taste of vanilla. But I suspect that Gerard’s pods are a lot fresher than the ones we can buy. I had to reduce the amount of oil and steep the mixture for a full day in a loosely covered container (to keep bacteria from developing) before the flavor of the vanilla came through.
It was well worth the extra effort. This lightly scented oil makes a delicious vinaigrette for fruit salad with just a splash of Meyer lemon juice or a few drops of balsamic vinegar, and as a finishing oil to drizzle over steamed vegetables or sautéed shrimp. Gerard has posted recipes in which he uses the oil to flavor lentil salad with orange zest, foie gras sauteed with mango, and creamy winter squash.
If you read French, you can go to his blog for all these recipes. Otherwise, here’s an adaptation of the method for making huile de vanille. (For more on Gerard Vives, please see the following posts on SpiceLines: From a Frenchman’s Garden, One Perfect Egg with Herbs, White Peppercorns and Honey Balsamic Syrup and A Conversation with Gerard Vives: A Spice Hunter’s Quest for Amazing Peppercorns; Poivre Sauvage.
(adapted from Gerard Vives)
3 whole vanilla beans, or to taste
1 cup grape seed oil, unflavored
1. With the tip of a sharp knife, make a slit down the length of each vanilla bean. Spread them open and use the knife to scrape the moist seeds into a small bowl. Reserve the pods.
2. Pour the oil into a small saucepan and warm it gently over low heat for a few minutes. Do not let the oil get too hot-it should be quite warm, but not so hot that you can’t dip your finger into the pot. Add the vanilla seeds and reserved pods, remove from the heat, and allow it to cool to room temperature. Loosely cover the pot with aluminum foil-do not seal tightly-and let the oil steep for about 8 hours, until it is lightly infused with the flavor of vanilla.
3. Remove the pods and discard. Briskly whisk the oil and seeds together to emulsify and break up any clumps of seeds. Decant into a jar, seal and refrigerate until needed.
4. To use the vanilla oil, first shake the jar vigorously to distribute the seeds. Then measure the amount you need.
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