Life of Spice

Written by fruit   // 25/11/2005   // 0 Comments

Hermann Egger grew some of the world’s best pepper in the rich volcanic soil of Papua New Guinea. WORDS BY ALLAN SMALL. Published in Australian Rare Fruit Review, Jan 2006

“Everything was perfect – the soil, our climate with its high humidity and rainfall, the good quality healthy pepper vines,” he recalled. “We were enthusiastic, ready to export both black and white pepper to the world markets, and appointed an agent in the UK to manage the expected sales.

“Sadly, the best he could offer was a miserly eight hundred pounds per tonne. That was less than one pound per kilogram, a disappointing result and meant the crop was not worth harvesting. Simply, we had no market for our product.

“So in 1975 we had tonnes of beautiful top quality pepper falling from the vines and rotting – the smell was great but the scene would make you cry.” The irony wasn’t lost on Hermann, who recalled the vicious ‘spice wars’ when some spices were worth more than their weight in gold. Colonial countries and wealthy, powerful merchants went to war to secure monopolies on New World spices, including pepper.

Hermann was sent to PNG by the Federal Government in 1967 to advise and assist local indigenous growers develop crops such as cocoa and pepper at locations including New Ireland, between Bougainville and Rabaul. His main brief was to boost cocoa production, and Hermann admits cocoa remains his passion even 30 years later.

“They were the best years of my life,” he said. “I lived there until 1995, working in New Ireland for eight or nine years, then Rabaul and Lae, developing plantations. The main plantation, owned by the provincial government in Lae, occupied about 500 acres.

“Coconut palms planted in a triangle layout were inter-planted with cocoa. The palms provided essential shade while the triangle enabled more plantings than were possible in a rectangular paddock.

“The Soubu Plantation on New Ireland already had established pepper vines, planted by the previous owner, but they had been badly neglected for years and had become wildly overgrown. We pruned them back to shape, on tree stumps and posts about two metres high. Pepper will do much better if it grows in partial shade, and here we had some shade trees, coconut palms and old unproductive cocoa trees to provide vine support plus the right balance of sunshine. With the vines trimmed and ventilation improved, we had no problems at all with insect or fungus attack. There was virtually no maintenance.

“Pepper is a continuous cropper, with a flush period at the start of the Wet season. We harvested between 300kg and half a tonne of pepper per acre. Stiff competition from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, where labour is ridiculously cheap, effectively killed the PNG pepper enterprise.”

Hermann said pepper vines produced crops for many years. Some vines, maybe 50 years old, continued to crop, but yields were uncommercially low.

So – what’s the difference between black pepper and white pepper? None, said Hermann.

“Black pepper is made by blanching black peppercorns in boiling water,” he said. “The skin shrinks but remains intact, then the peppercorns are drained and sun dried.” The black skin gives it a superior taste, according to Hermann.

White pepper is made by fermenting black peppercorns, which turn red when fully ripe, in fresh water, similarly to the processing of coffee beans. The chemical reaction softens the skin, which falls off, and the resulting white “skinless” peppercorns are sun dried.

While pepper proved to be a commercial disappointment, Hermann’s cocoa was a big winner. “My cocoa trees were bearing in just over a year, maybe two – that’s remarkably quick, and they had good quality pods,” he said. “Correct pruning is crucial with cocoa, and some ill-informed growers try to increase their crop to the maximum – consequently, I have seen many trees collapse under the weight of ripening cocoa pods.

“Part of the secret in any successful orchard or plantation is to select the right plants, and those that are strong in the nursery will be strong and thrive in the plantation.

“In Lae I was consulting on a big plantation with about 100,000 cocoa trees; this was my main project.”

Times changed and Hermann returned to Australia in 1995. A year later he had built and was operating a large hydroponics farm at Wondecla in Far North Queensland. He produced about 6,000 lettuces a week, before opting to move to Kewarra Beach, north of Cairns, to concentrate on commercial nursery propagation. And a new challenge: restoring an E-Type Jaguar in his precious spare time.


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