The Penja Pepper: How Chefs are Shaping Cameroon's Agricultural Land
When you go on an adventure to an unfamiliar country there is one thing you can almost guarantee, meeting a bunch of incredible people. You share stories, continually learn something new and impart what you have learn on your travels.
The other day when taking a bizarre car pool ride to Toronto I met one of these people. A taxi driver come farmer with an interesting story about how chefs had changed the economy of his home region.
What a catch.
And Louis* of course had an exquisite story to tell.
Home for Louis* was Cameroon, in the Penja Valley region. A place where they grow one specific type of fruit. The white Penja pepper. Which is dried into a familiar spice.
This pepper, which is also grown in countries like Vietnam and India, has a special worth in Cameroon, as the Penja pepper is now a protected geographical indication (like Champagne or the good old Cornish Pasty) making it worth a premium, over 10x that of an ordinary white pepper.
But why is this simple pepper such a great income for the people? Worldwide chefs have taken a keen interest in the distinctive taste of the pepper, due to the rich volcanic soil of the Penja region which provides a unique taste.
This meant now with prestige and essentially a brand the people of the Penja Valley can grow their peppers for an increasing market demand.
Louis* told me about how they grew their crop. I envisioned the farmers relying on seed from some large seed company (I was all ready to get huffy about the system), but actually that isn’t the case at all and I had to take the bee back out of my bonnet (or snowy winter hat in the Canadian case).
From an adult plant they cut a branch and place in a plastic bag (which you can do with many plants) with 1-2 year old chicken manure (older and not so rich that the nitrogen burns the plant). They leave the branch six months before planting it back in the ground. In about three years your tree will start to produce fruit. The tropical climate sees them plant in June and harvest in December.
Not a seed company in sight.
Plus they generally use a low input system. Fertilizer often comes in chicken poop form or the organic fertilizer Neem, where the plants seed kernels are crushed and oil extracted. Weeds are cut by hand. Chemicals are rarely used unless there is a chance they will lose a big crop.
Yes they believe that chemicals will harm the environment and they want to do the right thing there, but honestly? It’s cost. Chemicals are costly. Plus if their product is organic it sells for a premium and faster.
However Louis* was in awe of the growing methods in Vietnam where he said no chemicals are used, only cow manure and the Trichoderma fungi, which are used as a form of fungal disease biocontrol as they form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots and attack other fungus virulently.
But another cool aspect to growing the pepper is its desire for shade. This means there is no need to cut down forests and burn them to clear space for the plants like other plants in the area such as rubber.
Rubber is grown on the other farm Louis* owns in the region. Here they clear areas of forest to plant the rows of rubber plant, which take 5/6 years from a seed to produce crop. However then for 10 months a year you can harvest the plant’s sap and make rubber.
The forest takes a beating though. When the trees are cut and burnt this causes disruption to physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil (e.g. microorganisms and nutrients) as well as vegetation, plus risks of uncontrollable fire outbreaks.
It’s interesting, two crops both a popular form of income in the area but one seemingly much more destructive than the other.
We spent a good portion of rest of the car journey chatting farming, and him showing me pictures of his rubber plants (not sure how safe or legal this was on the motorway, but he seemed capable at multitasking as we pulled into a gas station while looking at a pepper cutting…road markings are more like guidelines right?).
So the moral of this story is make the most of long car journeys with strangers. Try not to doze too much as you might end up learning something unexpected or you might just stop a possible rubber plant initiated car crash. If you do snooze, dream of how it is possible for us all to shape the world with our choices, one pepper at a time…