'Thugs,' armed guards, and the black market for delicious patented pickled peppers

Patented, grown under armed guard, and suddenly ubiquitous, the Peppadew is a curious thing indeed

The outgoing voice message for this company sounds like a mobster who is trying to be reasonable. The gravelly accent lists the names of people and their extensions, but without job titles. At random I pick Kelly Polici, whose name I am spelling phonetically. She answers and in a professional and totally non-threatening way informs me that, to find out what I need to know, I need to talk to Pierre Crawley.

Crawley (also phonetic) does not pick up. He does not call back. Subsequent calls are stopped cold with the message, in a soft, computerized, female voice: "That mailbox is full. Goodbye."

I am trying (and failing) to reach Strohmeyer & Arpe Co. in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, the "North American Agent" of the Peppadew.

I am doing this because I love peppadews—as you probably do, or will, when you try them—and want to know more about them. I want to know how many the company sells. I want to know why I can't buy seeds to grow them. I want to know what they actually are, because this is the subject of some debate. Some say they are just common peppers in a patented pickle. The company insists that the peppers themselves are unique—and they are patented. There is a black market for the seeds, and there is controversy about what those seeds are. There is little reliable information online about any of this, which is why I tried to reach Strohmeyer & Arpe the old fashioned way, by phone.

But let's start at the beginning.

I discovered Peppadews on New Year's Day, in Accident, Maryland. My wife and I were at the MoonShadow Cafe. We had an hour to kill before a wine and cheese tasting at FireFly Farms—a goat cheese maker and wine shoppe across the street. We didn't want to eat too much—they feed you good at FireFly wine/cheese tastings. But I was hungry, so I ordered the Peppadews-with-crab-stuffing appetizer, and became obsessed.

These little peppers pack a huge taste—a little bite, but really just enough. And they have a sweet, clean finish that made me want more. They completely overwhelmed the crab stuffing. But I didn't care.

I wondered, how have I never heard of these things?

Then FireFly Farms served them with their chevre, hard cheeses, pickled mushrooms and asparagus, and andouille sausage. After a couple of glasses of wine I was on a mission. "These come out of the ground this way?" I raved. "It's unbelievable."

We have to grow these, I told my wife.

And so began the Great Peppadew Hunt.

The peppers themselves have, until recently, been a bit obscure. In 2011, Bon Appetit did a piece headlined "Where to Buy The Elusive Peppadew." Chowhound in 2013 ran a headline "What the hell is a Peppadew?"

The Wiki on it is a stub. "Applications have been made by the various owners of the brand to secure international breeders' right by application to the UPOV," it explains. (The UPOV? That's the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants.) "In 2000, South African mushroom producer, Denny Mushrooms, acquired the Peppadew brand and business. Denny has in turn since been acquired by AVI." There are footnotes, and a Department of Agriculture citation that goes to a dead link.

There is a 1998 plant journal with the details: "The plant was first observed in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa, where seeds were obtained. Further cultivation occurred in the Vivo district, Northern Province, South Africa. Approximately 12,750 plants were cultivated per cycle of 8 months each and during 3 cycles no variations were observed and the variety appeared to be stable and uniform. Breeder: Johannes Martinus Steenkamp, Tzaneen, Republic of South Africa."

What all this means is that Steenkamp (apparently) discovered a new variety of pepper growing in the wild, and patented it. (This is something you can actually do, according to the U.S. Patent Office, as long as you can asexually reproduce the plant you "discover.") The patent lasts 20 years and that means, accordingly, that the seeds are not available from the usual seed catalogs.

And that pisses off the gardeners of the world.

"I know that the growers for the Peppadew are made to sign a contract that they could face prosecution for distributing seed outside of the company," a blogger who goes by the handle "Tomato Addict" wrote in 2008. "The growing fields are actually guarded."

Tomato Addict called the Peppadew owners "extremely thug like" and boasted of a "world-wide secret seed cartel" from which they obtained the seeds. They pledged to make these widely available post-haste. "The Pepperdew Liberation Front (Bulgarian Section) sends fraternal greetings to our Capitalist Comrades in America," an anonymous commenter wrote, promising to publish a web address to order them through "once the correct security work is completed."

The website never appeared, although the Tomato Addict blog is still up and running, indicating that Tomato Addict has not been whacked by Denny "Mushrooms" Fuccitalia.

At least, not yet.

Encouraged, my wife spent Jan. 2 scanning the innerwebs for a black market Peppadew source, searching for honest hippies to sell the precious seeds.

There's a company vending "Malawi Peppadew seeds" on Amazon with two-star feedback out of five. The comments say things like "0% germination rate" and "NOT Peppadew seeds. I received traditional Italian cherry pepper seeds."

Next vendor was The Hippy Seed Company in Australia.

She sent them $5. We crossed our fingers.

Some say Peppadews are not really a new kind of pepper, just a nifty brine process. The hot pepper forum took up this debate recently.

"Yes different Cherry peppers are used to make it," a hot pepper forum member called "smokemaster" asserted confidently in December. "I'd assume, A LAND RACE variety is used for the original stuff. I have 3+ varieties the person said was what is the same as the stuff they use..."

Forum member Nigel agreed, but the discussion nonetheless became, uh, heated:

"I think that the Baccaum and whatever STILL makes little differrense," smokemaster wrote. "I DO think variety has nothing to make the difference as far as the end product goes. Popular opinion on the net as far as Species is TO ME suspect to speculation. WE are talking GENERALLY about a pickled END Product, Peppa Dew.. NOT a variety of pepper. It's about the product process."

More ALL CAPS statements and exclamation points ensued.

Whatever, Instructables has a recipe for "Pepperdews" (see what they did there?), using piquante peppers in a simple sweet brine with sugar and vinegar.

And "Pepper Dews" was written on the seed packet my wife received from Australian hippies in early February. We got a sprout on Feb. 8, but it will be months before we know what (if anything) we're growing.

Since our serendipitous discovery on Jan. 1, the peppadews seem to be everywhere. We've seen Peppadews on several restaurant menus, sampled them in the office as part of a photo shoot for EAT, and have even seen supermarket cheeses sporting them as an ingredient.

We bought two jars of proper pickled Peppadews from Wegmans for about $5 each. One jar is marked "mild" and has a black lid. The other is "hot" and has a red lid. The only difference between the two is the appearance of chili powder down the ingredient list.

We stuffed them with plain cream cheese and passed them around at work. Everyone likes them and no one seems to notice much difference between the mild and hot versions.

At home, we've thrown them in omelets, put them on crackers, and dipped them in fondue pots. There are still plenty left and we're not tired of them yet.

It will be months before the peppers we're trying to grow flower, and a while after that before we brine them and see how close we came to the Patented Process. By the time we're done with our DIY version we'll have spent several times the cost of the jarred versions.

Apparently, that's how you stick it to The Man.

Denny Mushrooms—if you are reading this—it's all a joke, see? And my wife put me up to it.

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