Feb 28, 2017


The country is still a blur of scents and colors that fills my head. The scents remain vivid in my memory—the steamy perfume of ylang ylang blossoms through the taxi window as we rattle down a dark bumpy road, the sweet fragrance of cured vanilla beans that's so thick and heady that I crouch down as though to tie my shoe, too dizzy to stand.

It takes a couple flights to get to Madagascar from Boston, a quick one to Paris and a long one to the capital, Antananarivo. It's a long way to go for a place that's not a piece of cake to visit, so a lot of the folks we talked to agree on one thing—it's usually something specific that draws people to the country. For some it's the rich biodiversity (the lemurs!) for others, it's service, such as the US Peace Corps.

Spices are certainly what drove me to travel to Madagascar, accompanied by my adventure-addicted husband, but the Peace Corps played a role too. My friend Matt (a Boston native) served in the Peace Corps in the Sava region, one of the largest vanilla producing areas of the country. While he completed his service a few years ago, he continues to return to the country to work with vanilla farmers, and has even launched his own vanilla importing business. So needless to say we've talked a lot of vanilla.

It's thanks to Matt that my husband Mark and I got to connect to a small vanilla company where we could learn first hand about this valuable spice. I'll be honest—I spent a lot of time researching this particular entry and trying to write about the vanilla industry in a succinct way. Not an easy task. Not only is the industry complex, but also there are a lot of pieces related to poverty and global economics that are just plain depressing (though important, so please see the end note). Instead of an academic post on the vanilla industry I've chosen to share a few spice highlights. And I hope that you'll join us at the shop next month for our "Madagascar Night" where you can learn a lot more and even contribute to a Malagasy charity we've chosen to support!

Ylang ylang Canaga odorata 

The island of Nosy Be in Northwest Madagascar is home to some of the largest production of this beautiful green-yellow flower. The fragrance is similar to jasmine—intensely floral, rich and creamy. The flowers are large - the size of a lime - and they grow on thick, craggy branches. They are harvested almost exclusively by women who start before dawn and pick until noon. While prized in the perfume industry (it's in the famous Chanel No. 5), it's used in food too. Jeni's ice-cream has a fennel and ylang ylang flavor! We use this intoxicating flower in our blend Fleur Spice.

Baie Rose Schinus terebinthifolius (seen above)

We took a seven-hour overland trip to get from West Madagascar to the very northern tip of the country, watching the landscape change from lush cacao and coffee farms to dry, arid landscapes where water is scarce but the chilies are hot. Our guide Angelina was eager to help me with my "spicy business" as he called it, and pointed out lots of plants along the way, including Baie rose, also known as pink pepper. The pink berries, when dried, look a lot like peppercorns, though the plant is unrelated to black pepper. The flavor is indeed a little peppery, with distinct floral and citrus notes. This particular spicy business stop was accompanied by this glamorous chameleon.

Vanilla Vanilla planifolia 

Vanilla is a complex crop—a flavor packed "bean" or fruit that comes from an orchid. Madagascar vanilla, known as "Bourbon vanilla" named from the nearby island of Reunion (île Bourbon) was introduced from the Americas in the early nineteenth century. The photo above, of green vanilla on the vine, was taken in the forest, where a lot of farmers' grow their vanilla in harmony with other plants. And while it grows all year round, there are distinct cycles for the commercial crop. When we visited in January it was the 'cured' or black vanilla season, which is to say, sale time. The price of vanilla is the highest it's been in a long time (running at $400/KG this year versus $50/KG in 2010), due not only to supply and demand issues, but also to quality problems that reach back to issues with production (see this article in the Seattle Times from last year). While problems abound, the exporting company we visited, owned and run by a friend of Matt named Matthieu, is an exemplary operation that offers great working conditions and sustainably sourced vanilla. The women sorting vanilla were smiling and laughing for our entire visit, and unlike me the strong scent didn't make them dizzy!

Join us for Madagascar Night!
When: Thursday, March 23rd from 7-9pm
Where: Curio Spice shop, 2265 Mass Ave, Cambridge MA 02140
What: An evening to learn about Madagascar spices and how to cook with them. Matt Amato will join us to share his experiences working with vanilla farmers, and you'll take home recipes and your own vial of vanilla beans. 30% of your ticket purchase (as well as any Malagasy souvenirs you choose to purchase) will benefit Macolline, a non-profit working to protect the Madagascar forest and generate jobs in the region we source vanilla.
RESERVE: Limited space! The cost is $25 per person and includes a tasting of dishes made with Malagasy spices as well as a vial of vanilla beans to take home. Please call the shop during open hours to reserve your spot! 617-945-1888


As a Public Benefit Corporation, Curio's mission is to have a positive material impact on both our local community as well as the countries where we source. In Madagascar, climate change and other factors contribute to severe poverty and deforestation throughout the country, including the area where we source vanilla. Due to the complexity of the issues, vanilla farmers still struggle to survive, even despite the high demand and price of vanilla. The Macolline Protection Association is working to protect valuable forest land, plant trees and provide education and jobs in the same area where we source vanilla. We believe that helping in these micro-areas is an important piece of the puzzle. Thanks for being a part of it! 

Dec 28, 2016

Heat to last the winter from Meggie's Farm

It seems fitting that Kris and John Maguire were in the jewelry business before they started growing peppers. They started the farm after retiring from their family-run jewelry business and since then have been cultivating at least fifteen varieties of peppers (amongst other unique veggies), many of which they dry and process into delicious ground spices. The farm is named Meggie's after their eldest granddaughter.

Sep 16, 2016

September Postcards

Owls Head, Maine

Dear August,

Thanks for the rose hips. I am glad I found an old zip-lock bag on the beach so that I could a) recycle it and b) use it to collect rose hips. It's September now and I am still in the process of making the darn jam, but it's going to taste great, especially with a touch of Madagascar vanilla bean. Rose hips are full of vitamin C which will help once the inevitable winter head-cold hits. I already miss you, since you're my favorite month of the summer, but October is pretty great, too.


New Orleans, Louisiana

Aug 1, 2016

Jun 25, 2016

Rainbows / Seaweed

We're coming up on the one year anniversary of a historic victory for gay rights. But then again, we are all still reeling from the mass murder in Orlando.

When I re-read a favorite poem recently, thinking about those lost in Orlando, I just sat and wept into my Norton Anthology.

Apr 20, 2016

Pollen Count

As I'm coming up on the one year anniversary of incorporating Curio Spice Company, I've been reflecting on one of the questions I've been asked a lot: "how did you get into this?" Sometimes I answer with a story about a poem I wrote in college about the saffron crocus (an esoteric beginning to a spice business), other times about farming.  But a recent study of bees and bee pollen made me realize this simple fact: I like to collect tasty things and bring them home to share.

There are other species besides humans and honeybees who collect. Male bowerbirds build elaborate nests and collect piles of objects of similar colors to attract their mate. Leaf cutter ants have entire societies built around the duties of cutting and collecting leaves for the ant colony. Collecting behavior ranges from the need for food storage to attracting mates to well, in my case, collecting spices because they make me feel alive.

Mar 31, 2016

A Beautiful Mess

I had a dream last night that I wandered into an open field. It was bright green and looked out over a lake. I sat down in the tall grass and put my head on my knees.

It's a strong contrast with where I sit right now at my messy desk with piles of papers and a half eaten banana, a cup of coffee I had to heat up in the microwave. When I finish my desk work I will head into the commercial kitchen (home of Curio manufacturing) which is in an industrial area of Somerville; the one window in the kitchen looks out over a car junkyard, smashed up sedans whose airbags have deployed; a spooky stillness hovering amidst the glinting metal.

Feb 2, 2016

Help with the Refugee Crisis in the Aegean

Blue water, black sand, fragrant thyme. Octopus cooked on a grill, eaten only with salt and lemon. The inspiration for one of the Curio Spice blends, Aegean Salt made with Chios mastic, lemon and thyme, came from the clean, bright flavors I tasted while traveling through the Greek Islands in 2010.

View from Samos, 2010

Jan 13, 2016

Homemade Chai

One afternoon when I was in college I stopped by our local natural foods store to see if they carried that chai that comes in the waxed cardboard box. The kind that you could just pour into a mug and microwave. It was Lent and in an uncustomary move I decided to give up coffee. I wasn't a coffee snob at that point - I drank the pumpkin and hazelnut flavored stuff - but I depended on that heart thrumming rush to get me through late nights of writing essays about Emily Dickinson.

Nov 30, 2015

New England Ginger

There's something deeply meditative about visiting a farm, but especially come late November in New England. Mid-afternoon brings sunset, covering the landscape in gold light; blue shadows nestle around the few kales and mustards still growing. Most farms are breathing a sigh of relief after the busy market season, when the fields are overflowing and farmers hustle to get it all harvested, processed, and sold. There's a lovely hush to late November in New England—a lullaby of frosts that signal it's time to put the farm to bed. We gather for Thanksgiving: eat till our bellies are over-full, then drink tea, maybe with a splash of bourbon and a dash of ginger; go to bed early.