Penja Pepper: White Gold from Africa’s Volcanic Valley

Penja Pepper: White Gold from Africa’s Volcanic Valley

Many decades ago, the Piper nigrum from India embraced the equatorial sun and found its new home in the rich, volcanic soils of Cameroon’s Penja Valley. It flourished into one of the best peppers in the world distinguished by its exceptional taste and aroma. Due to its origin, it became known as Penja pepper (Poivre de Penja).  

In 2013, Penja pepper was awarded a protected geographical indication label (PGI) which prohibits the product’s name from being used by producers outside of Penja Valley and guarantees the origin and the supreme quality of the product. Penja white pepper from Cameroon became known worldwide and highly sought after and praised by Michelin star chefs. 

Penja Pepper: The Secret Behind Distinctive Flavor 

2 - Black Penja pepper. Photo by wa-mi.org

The Moungo District, with its fertile, volcanic soil rich in minerals, optimal altitude, and excellent microclimate with sufficient rainfall, is ideal for growing pepper. These natural conditions and production methods directly influence the Penja pepper’s unique taste and aroma. That is the reason Penja pepper earned a prestigious Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status. Its exceptional qualities do not stem just from the pepper itself, but from the specific environment in which it is grown as well. 

White Penja pepper is known for its complex and intense aroma. It is often described as bold, musky, and woody, with some herbal freshness and a hint of balsamic notes. Its taste is distinguished by mild and well-balanced heat that is not overpowering. The rich and full-bodied flavor is complemented by subtle earthy undertones and mild sweetness after the initial burst of spiciness. Because of its unique and sophisticated flavor, Penja pepper can add depth and richness to a wide range of dishes, from simple meals to exquisite culinary creations. 

A Rise to Fame: The History of Penja Pepper 

3 - Penja Pepper in hand. Photo by WTO

Penja Valley is nested within the Moungo District in the Littoral Region of Cameroon in West Africa. Due to its rich volcanic soil, it has always been considered fertile and productive - a breadbasket of the country. As it is situated north of the coastal city of Douala, it has access to one of the major Cameroon ports and the ability to connect to international markets. 

From Cocoa to Pepper 

Historically, this part of Africa has been a gateway for European settlers and their colonial aspirations. They occupied African land and developed large plantations with the goal of supplying European markets with luxurious goods. The Germans were pioneers in establishing cocoa plantations, while the French and English followed by developing vast banana and coffee farms.  

In 1960, Cameroon gained its independence. Agriculture continued to develop through state-owned companies and private ventures, many of which were owned by French entrepreneurs and former settlers. The Moungo District became one of the most developed in Cameroon, but local producers often had to switch crops they grow depending on the demands of the global market. 

From an Experiment to Global Sensation 

4 - Black and white Penja pepper. Photo by Wikipedia

The cultivation of pepper in the Penja Valley traces its roots back to the 1950s and sparks a question: How did the Piper nigrum plant find its way to Penja Valley? According to some sources, the French colonialist Antoine Decré planted it on his banana plantation in Penja because he believed that the valley had great potential for growing high-quality pepper. The first crop consisted of 40kg of white peppercorns with distinctive flavor. Since then, Penja pepper cultivation has flourished to become the most celebrated export of this region and its main source of income. 

From Seed to Spice: A Long Journey to Perfection 

5 - Selling white penja pepper in the market. Photo by xinhua-kepseu

Penja Pepper is the finest white pepper in the world. Since it is cultivated exclusively in the Penja Valley, its quantities are limited and every grain is highly valued. The journey from planting to harvesting takes several years.  

Four Years Until the First Crop 

6 - Penja Pepper plantation. Photo by Penja Pepper - Povre de Penja fb

The cultivation of Penja pepper requires a waiting period of 4 long years before the first harvest. During that time, the plant needs diligent care, patience, and dedication. It is grown without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to ensure the purity and quality of the crop. The success is never guaranteed. Sometimes the production fails and it is necessary to start all over again.  

Harvested by Hand 

7 - Picking penja pepper by hand. Photo by xinhua-kepseu

Penja pepper is harvested at the precise moment of ripeness, exclusively by hand. In fact, every step of production - harvesting, retting, washing, drying, and sorting - is performed manually to ensure the highest quality. At the peak of its maturity, the peppercorns are white and that is the right time to harvest. Harvesting before that results in green peppercorns with a fresh and lemony taste. If left to dry on branches peppercorns become black, coarse, and spicy.  

The Process of Retting 

The harvested grains are soaked in clean water for 7 to 10 days. The quality of water is of crucial importance in this phase. It is imperative to use clean, drinking water and replace it with fresh water every two days. 

This soaking process is known as retting and is a delicate fermentation process that allows natural enzymes and bacteria to soften and break down the outer layer of the peppercorn, making it easier to remove. It is usually performed in plastic barrels or special concrete retting tanks. 

Drying in African Sun 

8 - African bush. Photo by Kamchatka

Following the retting process, the grains are cleaned thoroughly and rubbed vigorously to remove the pericarp or husk. The cleaned grains are spread across a pristine surface and dried in the sun for several days. During this period, they gain their characteristic white color. Sun also deepens and intensifies the pepper’s rich flavor and refined taste.  

Hand-Picking the Best 

9 -Harvesting Penja Peppers. Photo by Xnhua-Kepseu

The final stage is the Penja pepper process is sorting which is entirely conducted by hand. Skilled workers, mostly local women, meticulously sift through grains and hand-pick only the finest. They discard everything that does not meet strict standards of color and size providing an exceptional quality of the final product.  

Protected Geographical Indication and Market Potential 

10 - Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) Logo. PGI

In 2013, Penja Pepper was awarded a protected geographical indication (PGI) status. Together with several other African products, it became the testimony of Africa’s unique agricultural heritage. This status is a way of protecting and promoting regional-specific products on a global scale. It also contributes to the development of local communities and the improvement of their economic status. Before the PGI label, the production of Penja pepper was around 18 tons per year. Only several years later, 200 new farmers have taken up the production and the production has risen to 300 tons.  

The Protected Geographical Indication ensures strict quality control and traceability. Products with a single origin are gaining popularity in the EU and other countries as consumers are getting more curious about the origin of the products they use. They also tend to associate single-origin with higher quality. PGI provides more control over the supply chain enabling buyers to source directly from the producers. Therefore, Penja pepper farmers get an important advantage with this label. 

In Conclusion 

11. Adding pepper to seafood risotto. Photo by Jimin Shi-Longo

Today, the exceptional taste and quality of Penja pepper is well known among renowned chefs and food enthusiasts around the world. There is no doubt that Penja pepper is an exquisite and refined product with a unique identity and highly valued in the international market. It is also economically beneficial for local farmers and communities in Cameroon. The challenges that remain are climate change, land management, sustainable production, and maintaining the high-quality standards required by PGI status.  

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