Back from Sarawak
Our destination was the island of Borneo in Malaysia, the fourth largest island in the world. It is made up of three countries: the state of Sarawak (Malaysia) in the North, the state of Sabah (Brunei) to the East and Kalimantan (Indonesia) to the South. We set off for the Serian area on the China sea coast to the province of Sarawak where pepper has been produced for over 200 years.
Black and white Sarawak pepper both have Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status since November 2003. The aim of PGI is to promote and support the farmer’s work and to set up a charter to ensure quality, to define the zone the pepper is grown in and to guarantee to the consumer where the pepper comes from. The pepper producing zone ranges 16,000 hectares. In 2016, slightly more than 25,000 tons of Sarawak pepper were harvested. In Sarawak, pepper production is still today a family business. There are no large farms like in Vietnam for example.
The three main varieties of pepper (Piper nigrum) grown on the island are: Kuching, Semengok and Semengok Amen. The warm equatorial climate and the very high humidity levels provide the perfect conditions for growing Sarawak pepper. The pepper plants grow on the edges of rainforests, where the famous orangutans of Borneo live. The Chinese introduced pepper to the province of Sarawak in the 18th century. Borneo and China traded a lot of camphor, tortoise shells, pepper and cloves at the time.
Sarawak pepper production
The pepper plantations are formed in terraces that are perfect for capturing the rainwater. In Sarawak, the retting method to obtain the white peppercorns is natural and doesn’t need human intervention. Once harvested, the fresh green pepper drupes are left to soak for 14 days in the rivers that surround the plantations. Once filled with fresh water and with the help of the current of the river, the green pepper looses its hull. The pepper is then dried for 2 days in the sun on bamboo mats and then sorted and graded. This special retting method is what gives Sarawak white pepper its creamy colour and sweet notes of fresh fruit.
Sarawak black pepper is obtained by drying the freshly harvested green pepper drupes in the sun. After two days in the sun, the water contained in the green pepper evaporates. The pepper then looses its colour, turns black and shrivels.