Pepper is grown in many tropical countries. Vietnam, Indonesia and India are the world’s top peppercorn producers accounting for more than half of total production. But many chefs say that the best pepper comes from Kampot in southern Cambodia. In fact, Kampot Pepper is one of the few peppers in the world to have received the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.
TV chefs like the late Anthony Bordain have lauded the quality of Kampot Pepper, which is sold in black, red and white forms. The black pepper has been described as having delicate aromas of eucalyptus and mint. The red pepper has a more powerful, fruitier, and sweeter aroma (making it suitable for use in drinks and desserts), whilst the white pepper boasts an “intense bouquet” with notes of herbs and lemon.
Some Australian friends, Renee and Raphael Guillen, who lived as expats in Indochina for seven years, told me that “the fragrant qualities of Kampot Pepper are just so much more spiced and give a quality in cooking, or as an addition, that no other pepper does”. They said that whenever they or friends travel to Cambodia, they bring bulk supplies of Kampot Pepper back because “for any recipe that we love to recreate from our former home (lok lak, amok, pepper crab or calamari) there is no substitute”.
Pepper has been the world’s most consumed spice since antiquity and in Cambodia was known to have been growing since the 13th century. Peppercorns are the dried berries (or drupes to give them their correct term) of the Piper negrum vine which in the wild grows on trees on the fringes of tropical rainforests, but nowadays is usually grown commercially on supports made of bamboo poles. It can even be grown in tropical home gardens.
Pepper vines produce bunches of drupes that look somewhat like tiny grapes (but the bunch is more elongated). They are ready to harvest when some of the green drupes turn red. The green drupes are washed and dried in the sun and turn black. They are the familiar black peppercorns. The red drupes are similarly dried to become red peppercorns, or they are soaked in water to remove the skin to produce white peppercorns.
So, what makes Kampot Pepper different to pepper produced in other countries? Usually it is the unique ‘terroir’ of an area that makes a fruit or vegetable superior to the same crop in other regions. ‘Terroir’ is a French term referring to the environmental characteristics of an agricultural district such as climate, water quality and soil content. It’s why the same variety of grapes grown in different regions produce different wines.
The area around Kampot in Cambodia has a similar tropical climate to most other pepper growing regions, but it is said that the quartz content of the soils to the east of the town helps to produce a peppercorn that is more flavourful and aromatic but not overly hot. But is that the only reason? On a recent visit to Kampot, I set out to find the answer to that question.
There are many large pepper plantations near Kampot, as well as small pepper farms. Most of the smaller farms don’t accommodate visitors, but several of the larger plantations have set up visitor centres or cafes to promote their products. I chose La Plantation to visit. It’s one of the larger plantations about 20km east of Kampot on the other side of Brateak Krola Lake.
La Plantation is one of the newer plantations owned by a French/Belgian couple who acquired Cambodian citizenship. The French have had a long association with pepper production in Cambodia dating back to when the country became a French protectorate in the late 1800s.
Back the colonial days of Indochina, French chefs used to seek out Kampot Pepper for its superior quality, and many French companies established plantations around Kampot to grow this much sought-after spice. According to a BBC report, when the Khmer Rouge assumed power in 1975 and French landowners were forced to flee Cambodia, the ruthless communist dictators ordered the pepper plantations destroyed because the regime considered them a symbol of French colonialism.
And according to an NPR report, small farm holders were forced to leave their land as well and fight for the Khmer Rouge. After the four-year genocide was over, only a few farmers were able to start replanting, and it was about 30 years before the larger plantations started appearing on the landscape again.
Upon arrival at La Plantation, I was ushered to a beautiful wooden building which used to be part of a monastery, but which now serves as a visitor centre, museum, and café. As well as the black, red and white pepper on sale, there were variations like salted pepper and smoked pepper. Many of the items on the café menu incorporated one of the various types of Kampot Pepper. I tried the lime sorbet with red pepper, and it was deliciously refreshing.
A tour of the plantation is offered to visitors for free and I joined a group of half a dozen other travellers for a 40 minutes’ walk around the plantation. At the first opportunity, I asked our guide what was it that made Kampot Pepper special? She said the primary reason for its quality was that it is grown organically, unlike the pepper in neighbouring Vietnam which is grown with chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
I asked what type of organic fertilisers they used. She said they used buffalo manure and composts made from locally available plant materials, as well as a foliar fertiliser that they make by soaking leaves from the pepper plants in drums of water for three months. She explained that they also added to that concoction the leaves from a tree that was found in the forests on the nearby hills – but she didn’t know the name of the species. She said the leaf was very bitter. Perhaps that is one of the ‘secret’ ingredients that makes Kampot Pepper special.
She told us the care that is taken when selecting the berries from the pepper vine, the way in which they are cleaned and dried, and the storage conditions after processing, all play a part in producing pepper of the highest quality. She explained that this is all done by hand on the plantations and farms around Kampot, with up to 300 workers being employed at La Plantation during the harvesting season.
After my visit to La Plantation, I did some more online research and came across an article in which the owners of the plantation were interviewed. In that article, one of the owners referred to the wind bringing in minerals from the sea as the leaves of the pepper vine are sometimes covered in a salty dew in the morning.
Given that the plantation is over 10km from the ocean, I’m not convinced that the occasional salty dew would be a significant factor in the area’s ‘terroir’, but combined with the organic cultivation techniques that the guide had explained to me, all of those factors could add up to explaining why Kampot Pepper is so special and of such a high quality.
Probably nobody knows the exact reason why Kampot Pepper is superior, but the fact that it is produced organically, and the picking and grading is all done by hand, must play a significant role in explaining why Kampot Pepper is much sought after by chefs around the world.
Header image: © JM Travel Photography. Other images: © David Astley