I am standing in My Ugly Kitchen and I fret about how little Penja Pepper I have left.
In Penja, a small town in the south-west of Cameroon, each year a small crop of white pepper prized for its rarity and exceptional taste is produced. The volcanic soil of the Penja valley and the long hot dry season alternated by the long wet season during the West African monsoon interpose to create the unique flavours which Penja pepper are known for.
It is one of only three African products that carry the European Union’s Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) status. The Protected geographical indication is the name of an area, a specific place or, in exceptional cases, the name of a country, used as a description of an agricultural product or a foodstuff. Usually, such products have a specific quality, goodwill or other characteristic property, attributable to its geographical origin. Acquisition of PGI status protects products like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Italy and Champagne from France. …and no matter how good the sparkling wine you produce in your country is, if it is not from Champagne, you may not call it Champagne.
The process of obtaining this coveted pepper is long and labour intensive. After six months in the nursery, the pepper vines are planted at the foot of stakes (tree trunks) around which the vines of the Piper Nigrum plant will wrap themselves. It takes 5 years before the vines are ready to harvest. Once harvested, the white pepper is fermented for ten days in water that needs to be changed every 12 or 24 hours. This fermentation further adds to the unique flavour profile of Penja pepper.
Production of the peppercorn has increased in response to growing demand from Michelin-starred chefs and upscale restaurants around the world, according to a Bloomberg report.
Production increased more than fifteen-fold over the past five years, to 300 metric tons (330 US tons) a year, from barely 18 tons five years ago. It’s not surprising that Cameroonian farmers are abandoning traditional export crops such as coffee and cocoa for Penja peppercorn—it sells for 14,000 Cameroonian francs ($24) per kilo, compared to just 600 francs before it became a prized ingredient.
Descriptions of the taste of Penja pepper vary a lot:
…pronounced pungent taste, but does not burn the mouth.
…endowed with a "particular aroma, impossible to describe."
…"perfumed taste" and a "magic" aroma
…“It’s got herbaceous, grassy notes, with a great flavour, and it doesn’t burn,”
…flavours and aromas that are soft and refined with a delicate musky, mysterious perfume
What is clear is that its taste is considered to be unique and that the Penja pepper’s fortune improved once it was given a protected geographical indication label in 2013 by the African Intellectual Property Organization and several international agricultural organizations.
White Pepper in General
White pepper is used extensively in Asian cuisine, (notably Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine), especially for soups, marinades for meat and poultry and spicier stir-frys. In western cuisine, particularly by classically trained chefs, white pepper is used for aesthetic reasons in white dishes, such as béchamel sauce and mashed potatoes where the colour of black pepper would detract from the appearance of the dish.
White Pepper vs Black Pepper
Like black pepper, white pepper comes from the dried fruit of the pepper plant, Piper Nigrum
With white pepper, the dark outer skin of the pepper fruit is removed by soaking before the seed is dried. To make black pepper, unripe pepper berries are picked and then they are dried, which blackens the skin and adds flavour elements.
White pepper is made from fully ripe pepper berries. As stated before, they are soaked in water for about 10 days, leading to fermentation. Then their skins are removed, which also removes some of the hot piperine compound, as well as volatile oils and compounds that give black pepper its aroma. As a result, white pepper has a different flavour and heat component than black pepper.
White pepper is described as being spicier (hotter) and fruitier than black pepper, but less complex. Some say it has a musty or earthy flavour others say slightly smoky. It's best to only swap one for the other in small amounts in a recipe if you need to make a substitution. White pepper should be added after the dish has been cooked, as overheating can release a bitter flavour.
In the mid-eighties in South Africa, everyone suddenly went wild for coarsely ground black pepper and white pepper got forgotten. Traditionally in South-African Boerekos (traditional Afrikaner cuisine), white pepper was used.
I think it is high time that white pepper gets restored to its rightful place!
(My work took me to Cameroon regularly - that was about two years ago. I have been using the Penja Pepper I bought there so sparingly, but alas, there is not a lot left...)