Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
As you may know, I work in agriculture and plant protection. So naturally, it is with great interest that I accepted my wife’s proposal to participate in the educational outing proposed by the Douala Accueil association a few days ago.
The theme of the excursion was the visit to a pepper plantation in Penja, situated in the western part of Cameroon, two short hours by road from Douala.
The Penja region is famous for its pepper (Piper nigrum) growing on volcanic soils, providing the crop with its organoleptic qualities. The grade of this pepper is so interesting that a geographical indication (PGI – Protected Geographical Indication) protects the production under the name “Poivre de Penja”.
This article focuses on the crop itself. If you are interested in the story of this great day with the Douala Accueil association, you can read this article or visit the “Travel Diaries” part of my blog.
First step: The nursery
The pepper plant needs heat and light but is grown away from direct sunlight in humus-rich, cool, deep, and drained soil.
There are different methods of reproduction, whether by transplanting runners (stolons), cuttings, or sowing the seed. The favorite way of reproduction that guarantees the maximum preservation of production quality is transplanting the stolons. Therefore, there is a need to create nurseries to ensure ideal conditions for young plants to grow.
Once the pepper stolon is placed in the ground, vegetation can begin. The plants will remain in the nursery for six months and be repotted monthly. Technicians repot the small pepper tree once a new leaf is fully open. So as a consequence, once the sixth leaf is fully unfolded, the young pepper vine is planted in the field where it will stay all its life.
Second step: In the field
For those who don’t know, Piper nigrum is a creeping plant that needs a stake to grow. That is why technicians wisely choose trees that will be suitable for the sustainable development of the crop.
A good stake is a tree that grows at the same time as the vine and which one can work to give it a particular orientation. There are two essences that are particularly popular to be used as a support in Cameroon. Unfortunately, I forgot their names.
In the photos, you will notice the presence of banana trees and irrigation pipes. This is to create the proper moisture conditions for the suitable development of young shoots. In addition, the broad leaves of banana trees act as a natural filter against the sun’s harsh rays. As stated previously, the crop does not like direct sunlight.
Once the young sprouts are strong enough, technicians cut the banana trees to make space and avoid competition between the different plant species. The vine encircles the stake that goes on with its growth. And this relationship lasts for around sixty years (if the pepper is grown organically; if not, the crop’s life duration will be shorter).
Third step: The transformation
At the end of this third and last stage, we can consume the pepper we know, whether green, white, black, or red. But do you really know what the difference is between all these colors?
It is not about the species we use to produce the final product. But it is about when we collect the berries and how we process them afterward. Do we dry them or not? Do we remove the pericarp or not? Whatever process you implement, it will have an impact on the organoleptic quality of the final product.
The different kinds of pepper
Here is a summary I adapted and translated from Max Daumin’s website to understand the different colors and tastes:
Green: The berries are picked green before they mature. They are still waterlogged and very fragile. Most of the time, they are soaked in brine to preserve them. It is delicate to dry green pepper and to keep its stability, hence the scarcity of dry green pepper.
It is a pepper with vegetal notes, pronounced herbaceous. He is aerial. Slightly less spicy than black pepper, it is perfect for sauces, meats, and fish.
Black: This is the green pepper that is picked just before the berries turn yellow. It is allowed to air dry after being scalded and washed in water. By oxidizing in the air, it turns black naturally. All the care taken by the producer at this stage is essential. It will define the aromatic qualities of the pepper without denaturing them.
Black pepper still retains its vegetal notes from its green stage but benefits from more power and heat. It will go perfectly with meats but also with all your cooking.
Yellow: These are the few rare yellow beans that are picked just before their full maturity. They are scalded, washed in water, and then the skin is removed.
When the grains are yellow on the cluster of the pepper plant, they then benefit from the maximum concentration of essential oil and piperine. Piperine is the chemical compound responsible for spiciness. It is a powerful pepper with aniseed notes.
Red: This is a pepper that is picked when fully ripe. It is delicate; we choose the red beans just before they deteriorate. These are the late harvest of pepper. It is thus found more rarely due to its harvesting process.
Like grapes, red pepper is an almost sweet pepper. It has notes of raisins and pleasant hay. Its intensity has decreased compared to green and black pepper. It is ideal for white meats, vegetables, fish, desserts, pastries, and fruit.
White: This is red pepper from which the skin is removed. The grains are rubbed vigorously to remove the skin from the peppercorn (pericarp). The producer’s operation brings an aromatic expression different from the red pepper.
It is a red pepper combining power and sweetness but with more animal notes. It is suitable for delicate dishes.
Grey: The industry offers a ground pepper (not necessarily of good quality) with a grey color due to its grinding. A dash of pepper is not made to be stored in powder; it must be ground at the last moment.
Grey pepper has no flavors, just spiciness. This is the pepper from the transparent plastic container with the red cap of the canteen. Not recommended.
After visiting this excursion in Penja’s plantation with the Douala Accueil association, I really have another vision of this noble spice and its production. It was pretty interesting, and I have the feeling to have learned a lot.
For sure, from now on, I will look at my beefsteak differently!