[Editor’s note: Alland & Robert invited Contributor Kimberly Decker to visit its acacia gum supplier in Senegal. In the article, Kim described her 24-hour journey from San Francisco to Dakar, Senegal, and then on to the town of Thies, where she visited Ferlo Gomme, Alland & Robert’s sole supplier of acacia gum in Senegal. Kims caps her acacia journey by visiting Asilya Gum, a grower of acacia trees.]

Senegal had never been on the list of countries I was itching to visit. My passport bears stamps from eight African nations, but none from this country on the Atlantic Ocean.

Yet when the acacia gum specialists at Alland & Robert (Paris) invited Candy Industry and several other journalists on a two-day Senegal “ride-along” to meet growers and suppliers, my first reaction was: “That’s mad!” while my second was: “Quick, where’s my passport?”

And that’s how I ended up flying from San Francisco to Paris to Dakar, Senegal’s coastal capital in February. I was giddy at the prospect of not only earning my ninth African passport stamp, but also of spending a whirlwind 51 hours on the ground learning where acacia gum comes from, and how it becomes the functional hydrocolloid found in gum drops, caramel and toffee, gum and other foods and beverages.

Welcome to Senegal

I couldn’t have asked for a better set of acacia educators than my hosts Frédéric Alland, the company’s ceo and a fifth-generation Alland; Myriam Brunel, the company’s quality-assurance director; and Violaine Fauvarque, the marketing manager.

The four of us were on the same flight from Paris to Dakar. When we landed in the capital city, I appreciated their value as travel partners. For not only did their translation services come in handy (Senegal is a Francophone nation, and my French fits on the back of a bistro menu), but given that Frédéric and Myriam visit the country several times a year, they have the bureaucratic drill down and whisked me through customs in no time.

It was already pushing 10 p.m. by the time we hopped in our van and set out to the beachside bungalows where we’d be spending the night. After almost 24 hours in the air and/or wandering around Charles de Gaulle Airport, I was riding the waves to sleep within minutes of climbing under my mosquito net. I had a busy two days ahead.

Hitting the road to the ‘acacia belt’

I woke the next morning to the scent of the sea and followed it to the hotel’s cookhouse above the shore, where I was greeted by yet more enticing aromas: a suitably French breakfast of baguettes, croissants and coffee.

I was met by my fellow travelers. We numbered six, and save for the economics reporter from Radio Francie International, all of us wrote for food, beverage or nutrition publications. Everyone spoke excellent English (lucky for me!) and all were highly cool — which is a good thing to be when you’re stuck together in a van for two days exploring Senegal’s “acacia belt.”

We brushed the croissant crumbs from our laps and headed to Thies, not quite 50 miles east of Dakar. First stop: the facilities of Ferlo Gomme, Alland & Robert’s sole  supplier of acacia gum in Senegal. The drive there gave me time to soak in the sandy surrounding Sahel (complete with donkey carts and the occasional camel). I also had time for a quick refresher course on acacia gum.

Acacia Gum 101

I was hardly a stranger to acacia gum before the trip, having been tested on it during my food-science studies at college, and writing about it professionally since then. But as I learned, there’s a lot about acacia gum I had yet to learn.

Molecularly speaking, the gum consists of a polysaccharide fraction comprising arabinose, galactose, rhamnose and glucuronic acid — collectively called arabinogalactose — and a protein fraction made up of arabinogalactan. While the polysaccharide portion is hydrophilic, the arabinogalactan protein is hydrophobic. This makes acacia gum amphiphilic — and the way in which the water-loving polysaccharide branches envelop the lipid-loving protein core renders the gum an excellent emulsifier, able to lower the surface tension at oil-in-water and air-in-water interfaces such that the two immiscible phases can peacefully coexist.

But that’s not all acacia gum does. It’s an effective stabilizer and encapsulation medium. It forms films, builds texture, binds and coats. At as much as 90 percent soluble prebiotic fiber on a dry-weight basis, it’s a handy nutritional ingredient, too. All that and it’s colorless, tasteless, odorless, water-soluble, non-hygroscopic and stable across a range of pH, temperature and shear values.

No wonder it’s in everything from gum drops and soda pop to mascara and gel caps.

A warehouse of gum and the ‘acacia dance’

But before acacia gum does any of that, it has to get out of the acacia tree and into the hands of Ibrahim Ka, the general manager of Ferlo Gomme. When we arrived at the company’s gum-sorting facilities, Monsieur Ka — a tall, slim gentleman decked in a blue boubou, Senegal’s traditional ankle-length robe — met us with yet more croissants, as well as sweet Senegalese tea lightly thickened with — you guessed it — acacia gum.

The sorting complex was a tidy collection of whitewashed administrative buildings and larger warehouses flanked by a garden of fruiting and flowering trees where employees can take meditative breaks. That humane touch reflects the care the company bestows its workers — and, it turns out, its acacia gum.

That gum arrives at the facility from any of the 20,000-plus hectares of proprietary plantations planted around the country by Asilya Gum, the agriculturally oriented sibling of the trading-oriented Ferlo. (Ibrahim ably manages both.) Once at the facility, the rocklike “nodules” of gum rest in a warehouse until at a moisture level suitable for further sorting. (At one point, Frédéric impressed us with his skill at gauging the gum’s moisture simply by listening to the sound it made as he walked across a sack. We dubbed his smooth moves the “acacia dance.”)

The scene within the warehouse where the gum rested was a sight to behold, as its floor appeared to be carpeted in a layer of amber- and coral-colored geodes — the drying acacia nodules. They ranged in size from pebbly to as big as a fist, and they were so pretty that you wanted to take some home with you as souvenirs. (I did, and my nodule is sitting on a shelf right next to my laptop right now, still flecked with authentic Senegalese dirt and leaf matter.)

After resting sufficiently in the warehouse, the nodules get carted to another workspace next door, scooped into a hopper and deposited onto a conveyer belt. A team of local ladies in colorful headscarves and plastic gloves inspects the nodules as they travel down the belt, weeding out the good from the not-quite according to quality standards that Alland & Robert helped Ferlo implement. Those nodules that make the cut then get bagged into sacks and shipped, eventually, to Alland & Robert’s two plants in Normandy, France.

Visiting the orchard

That Asilya Gum even cultivates acacia on so large a scale is a minor marvel, as acacia trees have historically resisted attempts at agriculture. Not unlike finicky wine grapes, they languish if planted too close, or if denied just the right levels of water, nutrients, sunlight and other growth factors.

Alas, both Ibrahim Ka, the general manager of Ferlo Gomme, and Frédéric Alland, the ceo of Alland & Rebort, confirmed that climate change is already introducing novel challenges to acacia farming in the form of unpredictable weather extremes and hardy new pests. Nevertheless, the Asilya crew soldiers on, proud of the fact that they’re the first growers in West Africa to farm acacia gum successfully.

We visited one such farm on our second full day in country. After a night in the town of Dahra — and a dinner of chicken tagine and stewed goat at the home of Anouar, Aslilya’s Moroccan orchard manager — we awoke the next morning to the sound of three separate muezzins calling us to prayer (or, more accurately in our case, to breakfast).

That snapped us out of our slumber and into the team van en route to the farm’s “main house.” Once there, we boarded a convoy of trucks and off-roaded it to the orchards themselves.

On the way, I learned that acacia is one of the strongest trees in the Sahel, its roots reaching as far as 30 feet down, where they hold onto soil and stave off desertification. On average, the Acacia Senegal trees that Asilya grows can produce 250 grams (a little more than one-half pound) of gum per year. The trees aren’t generally tapped until they’re six years old, but after that, they can produce for 20 more years, if tended properly.

And careful tending is critical, both to the trees’ health and to the quality of the gum they yield. So how do Asilya’s workers harvest with care? In short, they make a superficial “scrape” along the trees’ trunks and branches, which prompts the trees’ defense systems to exude the gum just as our own bodies would send immune chemicals to the site of a new wound.

Over time, this exudate collects and hardens into the translucent, gem-like nodules that we saw spread across Ferlo’s sorting-warehouse floor. And when those nodules get to just the right size and hardness on the tree, harvesters carefully excise them, making sure not to cut too deeply and damage the trunks. The process neither harms nor weakens the acacias any more than the tapping of maples for syrup, Frédéric assured us. And given that the orchards are the foundation of the community’s livelihood, all the workers involved have a stake in keeping them in prime producing order.

Even acacia orchards have terroir

After selecting and harvesting the crude gum, the workers collect the nodules and carry them back to the farmhouse for the subsequent steps of kibbling — breaking apart larger chunks into smaller ones — light cleaning of field debris and preliminary sorting and drying before shipment to the sorting facility that we’d visited the previous day.

And at every step in the process — from collection in the orchard to bagging at the final facility — the Asilya and Ferlo crew tracks each particular of the gum’s path. As Myriam Brunel, the company’s quality director, explained, maintaining a complete and fully traceable account of details like the plot where the gum was harvested, the harvest date and the prevailing weather conditions at the time is essential because such details influence how the gum performs functionally in applications.

For example, back in France at Alland & Robert’s R&D lab, a team of food scientists led by Isabelle Jaouen, the company’s lab director, works with universities and research institutions to elucidate what makes acacia gum special, and how its growth and harvest conditions affect its functionality.

Among the insights they’ve gained is that a gum’s emulsifying capacity depends, in part, on its country of origin and the soil composition in which it grew. Gum from Senegal’s sandy soils, it turns out, maintains emulsion stability better than gum from trees growing in clay-based soils. The lesson is that by knowing the path a gum followed from farm to factory, Alland & Robert can better predict what sort of ingredient it’ll be.

Anyone who’s read even lightly on viticulture will observe that similar conditions influence the quality of wine grapes — sandy soils versus clay; sunny slopes versus shady ones. It’s all about the terroir, right? And sure enough, Asilya growers even selectively graft high-performing rootstock onto trees to improve output, much as wine-grape growers do. So it seemed rather fitting that a parallel would emerge between France’s iconic wine grapes and this agricultural product that a French firm now sources from African partners.

I reflected on all this as I flew back to SFO, my shiny nodule of acacia gum tucked deep within my carry-on bag so as not to attract the prying eyes of the Customs and Border Protection officers. And I thought about something, else, too: Violaine Fauvarque, Alland & Robert’s marketing manager, mentioned that the more we learn about acacia gum, the more we realize how much more there is to learn. After spending two days in Senegal getting a small taste of what’s out there, I can’t wait to find out more.