Vanilla was brought to Madagascar at the end of the 19th century. The variety of vanilla that is grown here is Bourbon vanilla, which, according to many of the best chefs and bakers around the world, is unparalleled in its complex flavor and aroma. Malagasy exporters and producers explain that these characteristics are only enhanced by the unique techniques Malagasy producers use to dry the bean, which have remained unchanged for over a century. The island’s soil and microclimate at its northeast end are also cited as reasons for Malagasy vanilla’s complex flavor.

Vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world, and Madagascar’s is sold for around $250 per kilo or more, depending on supply. The vanilla bean is the seed pod of an orchid that must be pollinated by hand, which contributes to the high cost. Unlike coffee, the price of vanilla is not regulated by an international organization, which enables exporters to give free reign to speculation. The U.S., Europe, Japan and more recently China and Brazil buy vanilla from Madagascar, which produces thousands of tons per year—80% of the world’s vanilla. But despite the high cost of the spice, and the world’s dependence on Madagascar’s supply, wages here are among the lowest in the world.

A young worker in Karela inseminates an orchid flower to produce green vanilla.
A worker checks a patch in a vanilla plantation near Sambava. Vanilla needs shade and humidity to grow.
Nirina (center), a vanilla worker in Sambava, poses at home with her mother and her son.
1. Workers in Sambava spread vanilla in the sun to dry it. / 2. Vanilla is sorted according to its length, quality and color.
Sambava is often called the “capital of vanilla.”
Thierry Lopat, CEO of the vanilla export business that his grandfather started 80 years ago.

The newsletter you need Get more Bourdain in your inbox. This week: Southern Italy.