Over 40 years ago, my father used to purchase whole Bird’s Eye Chillies from Papua New Guinea (PNG) for our family herb and spice business, Somerset Cottage. As time went by, these fiery little numbers became harder and harder to find. As a result, many spice traders started to sell other, larger varieties of chillies, incorrectly labelled Bird’s Eye.
While I have been able to source some Bird’s Eye Chillies recently from India, it made sense to me to try and see what the current situation was with our nearest neighbour.
Last week, I visited PNG as a guest of Australian David Peate, a long-term resident of PNG and Managing Director of Paradise Spices based in Port Moresby. Paradise Spices is working to develop the market for high quality spices, some unique to PNG, such as Sogeri Ginger.
While various PNG farmers produce spices such as pepper, chillies, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg and vanilla, many of these are grown in village gardens rather than orderly plantations. As a result, it has been difficult for farmers to earn a reasonable income from these crops.
Over a few days, I ventured to Rigo District to meet a chilli farmer, before travelling to Sogeri where I meet ginger growers to gain a better understanding as to how we could source high quality spices from these farmers moving forward.
My journey began with a two-hour drive from Port Moresby to the Rigo District to meet Daniel, a Bird’s Eye Chilli grower.
When we arrived, Daniel told us that he only had a few chilli bushes in fruit, as the season had been very dry, and like many farmers in this region, he has no means of irrigation. This highlighted the first major hurdle these farmers have to overcome. Without a pump and some form of water storage, Daniel and hundreds of farmers like him are totally weather dependent.
Daniel then showed me his best Bird’s Eye Chilli bush in this video:
In spite of the hardships faced, Daniel was warm and hospitable, sharing his love of chillies with me!
Fortunately, Daniel is still able to make a modest income from his banana crop, and we hope there will be rain soon. When it does rain, seeds from past plants will re-germinate and dozens of new plants will emerge in a haphazard, yet highly effective way.
I asked Daniel if it was a problem constantly handling such hot chillies when he harvests them, to which he replied “I cut them with scissors into a basket”. Another example of how harvesting spices is so labour-intensive.
In a good season, Paradise Spices will buy these chillies from Daniel, dehydrate them in a dryer and then sell them either whole, or ground into a rich fiery chilli powder.
The next day we travelled south of Port Moresby, towards the Sogeri district stopping to take photographs of a magnificent waterfall and jungle on the way.
Looking at the impenetrable jungle and rising cliffs was a sobering experience, given that my father and father-in-law both survived the war in this region.
On a brighter note, we arrived at the district of Sogeri to meet more hospitable farmers there.
This fertile scenic valley has dozens of farmers growing Sogeri Ginger. I first met with Barry, who explained some of the details of ginger growing in this video.
The whole valley was occupied by ginger farmers, and we ventured forth to meet another grower called David, who kindly spoke to me about his farming methods for ginger in this video.
All land preparation, tilling, planting and harvesting is undertaken with manual implements. Machinery is not used in these remote areas, which reinforces how much effort goes into the production of many of the spices that we take for granted.
In this video, Menaru, who farms land made available by the Salvation Army, shows us large ginger rhizomes ready for market.
Most spice experiences are enlightening, and this brief sojourn in PNG was no exception. I met hard working farmers and was impressed with the fact that they don’t use chemicals, as a) they don’t need to, and b) cannot afford them. Fortunately, the chemical companies have not convinced them to use something they don’t need!
Our next step is to have samples analysed, and compile the information needed to import them through Australian quarantine.
All going well, you will see some very special PNG spices in the Herbie’s Spices range some time in 2017.
For more information about spices, their history and much more including recipes, refer to The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill, with recipes by Kate Hemphill.