"Kampot pepper is very special. It grows best at the foot of the mountains because of the quartz in the soil," says Sorn Sothy, the owner of Sothy's Pepper Farm, a small pepper farm near Kampot, Cambodia. The region, along the country's southern coast, is famed for the spice, which was the first Cambodian product to receive a Protected Geographical Indication (the same certification that protects regional products like Champagne). The mineral-rich soil and rainy weather in the high-elevation areas near Kampot and Kep are perfect for pepper production, and I was here to see it firsthand.
From our home base in riverside Kampot, what had looked like a short trip on the map actually took about an hour. As our tuk-tuk pulled away from the crumbling colonial town, the landscape gave way to lotus marshes and houses on stilts. I closed my eyes each time a bus passed on that unpaved road. I feared that we'd topple into the fetid gully, where earlier, our driver had stopped to collect water to cool his overheating engine.
We spotted pepper vines on either side of us as our driver turned off the road to ascend a hill. Peppercorns have been cultivated in Cambodia since the 13th century, but the industry really boomed under French colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, when European chefs started appreciating Kampot pepper's notably floral and slightly sweet flavor. The pepper's most important characteristic, according to Sothy, is its tendency to linger on the tongue. "The taste of Kampot pepper stays in your mouth for a long, long time," she says.
Cambodia's pepper industry went into a major decline thanks to the Khmer Rouge regime's policies in the 1970's, but today it's experiencing a renaissance as the country reopens to the world. Sothy's farm is relatively new — the vines were planted in 2007 by the former owner. Until last year, Sothy was working as a midwife in the capital of Phnom Penh. "I had always dreamed of having my own garden, to get away from the city," she says. So when she and her husband, a journalist, had an opportunity to buy a pepper farm, they went for it. Besides pepper, the farm is filled with pecking chickens and fruit trees like mango, durian, papaya, and rambutan.
The pepper vines take three years to grow to production stage, but "they can grow for twenty years if you care for them," Sothy explains. Pests are a major problem in this tropical climate, but growers typically use natural pesticides. Sothy also uses cow manure and guano collected from the bat filled caves nearby. Peppercorn vines are extremely sensitive to sunlight, so meticulous rows of dried palm branches protect them from the harsh rays.
After reaching maturity, pepper can be harvested every year from February through May. Peppercorns are removed from the stem, boiled for two minutes, and then left to dry in the sun for one week. Black peppercorns are actually green when harvested, but they change color during the drying process. White peppercorns are simply black pepper with the skin removed, so they aren't quite as spicy. The red peppercorns are green peppercorns that have been left on the vine for four months longer. They retain their color when dried and are the sweetest and most expensive variety because they take longer to mature. All colors of Kampot pepper have the jasmine-like quality that makes them justifiably famous.
But the best part of visiting a pepper farm is having access to fresh peppercorns, right on the stem. Most pepper is dried, and when you do find fresh peppercorns in the United States, they're usually pickled or brined. Fresh peppercorns are bracingly spicy at first but then mellow into a sweet herbaceousness.
Following the farm tour, we feasted on a dish featuring Kampot's two most famous ingredients —seafood and peppercorns. At a rustic Khmer restaurant by the river, between intermittent bites of spicy pepper, we ate whole crab stir-fried with nothing but the fresh peppercorns themselves. They imbued the seafood with that unmistakable floral flavor while highlighting the subtle sweetness of both ingredients.