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Taste | Monita Roughsedge

The King of Spice: A Story of Sarawak Pepper

The Most Popular Spice in the World

It’s mid morning when we arrive at our destination and step out of the air-conditioned comfort of our seen-better-days people mover. It’s hot, but that’s to be expected, we’re in the tropics. The earth is red and sticky and clings to our shoes. A silvery blanket of mist hangs in the air, making the distant mountain range appear smeary and smudged. The predominant colour around us is green. Lush, velvety green with tendrils that envelope all that it touches. The land here is rich and fertile, you can almost feel the rainforest growing.

We’re on the island of Borneo, home of the hornbill and orang-utan, about 30km out of Kuching, the main township in the state of Sarawak, in what’s known as east Malaysia. We’ve come to meet Alfonso Sapis, a local farmer who has kindly agreed to show us around his small but thriving pepper plantation.

Alfonso is indigenous to Sarawak; his family are Iban, or Sea Dayaks, one of the seven main indigenous groups of Borneo. Their forefathers would have been headhunters, but that’s another story.

Vivacious and welcoming, Alfonso ushers us into the heart of his pepper farm, advising us to be careful not to slip, as the ground is steep and slippery. Pepper, Alfonso tells us, grows best on slopes or hillsides, as it requires good drainage.

A few metres off the roadside and we’re surrounded by columns of vibrant green pepper vines. Between 2 and 4 metres high, Alfonso has 475 pepper vines in total, not a lot but enough, he tells us, to support his family. Spotted through the vines, we notice a scattering of banana trees, durian trees, pineapple plants and flashes of red chillies. These are not for sale, they’re planted to keep the ground healthy and of course, to cut down on the weekly grocery bill.

Alfonso bends down to point out a young plant and explain the growing process. The small seedlings are planted with care, with only a little natural fertiliser added to the soil and supported by strong hardwood posts made out of Belian, a local rainforest ironwood. These timber posts, Alfonso says, are the secret to Sarawak’s pepper farming success. Concrete, PVC pipes and other sorts of timber have all been tested but nothing is as effective as Belian. Alfonso is passionate about his pepper, “We add no chemicals or pesticides.” he says, “Caring for pepper vines is like caring for human beings; if the plants are not looked after and supported properly they will become unhealthy and shabby looking.”

Peppercorns grow in clusters, like grapes, and are ripe when they start to turn a brilliant orange-red. It takes 18 months until the vines are ready for their first harvest. Then, once a year the pepper is painstakingly harvested by hand, with the vine producing succulent little peppery berries for up to 10 years.

Once picked, the processing requires very little in the way of technology. The fresh peppercorns are laid out to dry in shallow wicker baskets or mats in the warm Sarawak sun. In 3 to 4 days, as long as the weather holds up, you’ll have black peppercorns! If you prefer white pepper, the process is a little more time consuming. The fresh peppercorns are soaked in clean water for 2 weeks, swishing the peppercorns around and changing the water every day to loosen the skins. Once the skins have let go the now creamy coloured peppercorns are drained and set to dry in the sun for another 3 or 4 days….and voila, white peppercorns!

Considered the king of spice, pepper is the most widely used seasoning around the world. Indigenous to southern India, pepper dates back over 4,000 years. In Egypt, black peppercorns were found stuffed into the nostrils of Ramses II, as a part of his mummification process after his death in 1213BC. As a trade commodity, it was once considered more precious than pearls with the Arabs turning the secrets of pepper growing into fantastical myths involving guardian serpents and wild fires that apparently turned the pepper black. Pepper was so valuable it was often used to pay rent and included in the dowries of young brides. In the 16th Century, dockworkers were subject to dress codes ensuring their clothing had no pockets or cuffs to prevent them stealing this treasured spice!

These days, pepper is of course more affordable yet it’s still a vital ingredient for enhancing the flavour of almost every cuisine imaginable as well as being considered one of the world’s healthiest foods. This tiny berry is packed with nutrients, being an excellent source of vitamin K, Calcium, Iron and Manganese. It contains vitamin A, E, C and B6, Riboflavin, Thiamin, Niacin, Potassium and Folate, plus, it has zero calories! The active agent in pepper is called piperine, which is said to enhance memory, improve brain function and to be beneficial for those suffering from depression. Pepper has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well as being a great expectorant – for a bad cough, add a quarter of a teaspoon of freshly crushed pepper to 1 tablespoon of honey. Mix thoroughly and enjoy! A sprinkle of pepper can also help the body absorb nutrients from other foods plus it’s also good for toothaches. Who knew?!!

In Sarawak, pepper is such an integral part of the diet that it’s often found growing in people’s backyard.

Pepper has been commercially grown here for well over 150 years and while it’s considered one of Malaysia’s major export commodities, Sarawak pepper is still farmed in small plots on local, family run farms. “We’re proud of our pepper.” Says Alfonso, and quite rightly so. Sarawak pepper is considered a gourmet’s pepper and is sought after by chefs around the world. Grown in relatively small quantities with no chemicals, hand reared in rich, fertile soils and left to dry in the golden tropical sun, no wonder the pepper here is exquisite.

There’s pepper and then there’s Sarawak pepper. Describing the taste is a bit like recounting the taste of a good wine.

Black Sarawak pepper has a big, rounded, woody aroma with a noticeable citrus pinch, but the taste is mellow, with a balanced woodiness that’s slightly sweet. White Sarawak pepper has a musk-like, slightly liquorice aroma. It’s medium-strength in spiciness, with lemony notes and leaves a light, tongue-tingling sensation in the mouth.

As our tour of Alfonso’s pepper farm draws to an end, we gather around a small rickety plastic table under a stretched tarpaulin for a cool drink. “I haven’t always grown pepper,” Alfonso announces, as he scoops up an assortment of drinks out of the outdoor fridge. “I worked in the hotel industry for 30 years.” That explains his cheerful tolerance for my barrage of questions. “I decided to take an early retirement and return to the family farm to continue our tradition of pepper growing. I love it here.” He tells us. That makes sense, there’s a lot to love.

Here in Australia, Sarawak pepper can be hard to come by. It’s distinct flavour and superb quality is unique; once tasted it’s hard to turn back! Which is why, we at One Tribe: Original Design Culture, are extremely proud to be able to stock 100% Sarawak pepper in our speciality store. Thank goodness for people like Alfonso!