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 Dairy Foods 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 ice cream, gum drops and mascara (to name just three of its many uses).

Welcome to Senegal, land of acacia

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 Senegal's '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.

A refresher course on just what is acacia gum

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% 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 soda pop and gum drops to mascara and gel caps. In the dairy case, you’ll find it in ice creams—where its air-holding ability boosts overrun—and in frozen desserts, yogurts and beverages, where it might replace synthetic emulsifiers, enhance mouthfeel, impede ice-crystal formation, improve freeze-thaw stability and even protect probiotics.

Inside a warehouse of gum and doing 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.

Next week: I visit the town of Dahra and feast on a dinner of chicken tagine and stewed goat; I learn that an acacia tree’s roots reach as far as 30 feet into the ground; and I witness the delicate harvesting of the gum.