On expansive farms in the green hills outside Kampot, Cambodia, are long green vines wrapped like snakes around 12-foot high brick towers and bamboo poles. Dotted along the bright green vines are small fruits – peppercorns – one of Cambodia’s finest export crops. The pepper farms of Kampot produce pepper which has been cultivated for centuries, with different varieties and complex tastes, and is often considered the world’s best pepper.
On the southern coast of Cambodia is the city of Kampot, a sun-baked town of French colonial architecture, flowering trees, sleepy tuk tuk drivers and colourful Chinese shophouses. The Kampot old town is a UNESCO World Hertitage site candidate, a sleepy network of dusty streets with a low-key colonial charm.
Outside the city, rice paddies stretch along red mud roads, bright green shoots emerging from the flooded fields that mirror the sky above. Kids wave and laugh at passers-by, jumping with a great splash into the water as distant buffalo watch in an absent stupor, tails flicking and teeth chewing. While rice is grown everywhere in Kampot province, the real star of the show is Kampot Pepper.
What Is Kampot Pepper, And Why Is It So Special?
Kampot Pepper was called “the tabletop standard for all France” by the late Anthony Bourdain. Time magazine quoted “There’s pepper, and then there’s Kampot pepper.” But why is this particular pepper so special? There are certain taste qualities beyond just spicy heat that make Kampot pepper unique, according to Nathalie Chaboche, a French pepper producer based in Kampot. Her full interview can be found here.
There are three main varieties of peppercorns that Kampot produces, which come from the same plant. Black pepper is the most recognisable peppercorn type, that many people have in their households. Black pepper is harvested from an unripe, green pepper drupe (a fleshy fruit with a central stone/seed). They are cooked briefly in hot water, which cleans then, then dried out, giving the peppercorn its black colour. The black pepper is a mild spice, with a pleasant aftertaste. Biting one will produce a slight citrus and mint aftertaste, and is best served with red meat.
Red pepper is made from fully mature, ripe peppercorn drupes. Chaboche describes the taste as having a sweetness, a fruitiness, and a hint of tobacco. Due to its sweetness, it can even go well with desserts or salads.
White pepper is harvested from ripe fruit of the pepper plant, and has a milder flavour. To make white pepper, the skin is removed which leaves just the ‘kernel’ of the peppercorn, giving it an aroma of herbs, or anise. White pepper is best used for fish.
Indeed, Kampot pepper earned the honour of having a Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) in 2016, which designates pepper from this region to be protected (just like Champagne, from the Champagne region). What’s more, only farms certified by the Kampot Pepper Producers Association (KPPA) can sell produce with the Kampot Pepper designation. It helps Kampot pepper stay distinctly superior, especially as cheaper alternatives from Vietnam have arisen in recent years.
Part of the reason why Kampot pepper is so highly regarded for its taste if because of the climate. Kampot, sandwiched between the Elephant Mountains and the sea, has a high annual rainfall, lots of sun, and nutrient-rich soils that contain high levels of quartz. Pepper growing techniques on Kampot pepper farms date back to the 13th century.
How Is Kampot Pepper Grown?
Kampot pepper is grown organically, with flowering vines secured to bamboo poles or brick towers. The first fruits grow in September, which appear are small bundles of tightly packed peppercorns. In January, peppercorns to be used for black pepper are harvested, and dried. Other peppercorns for white pepper are harvested, and soaked to remove their skins.
Around March, the fully ripe red peppercorns are ready to harvest. Pepper vines require a lot of water – around 7 or 8 litres per vine, per day – ideal with Cambodia’s high annual rainfall.
Tasting Kampot Pepper
More and more farms in Kampot are offering the chance to tour the plantations and try the peppercorns, much like a wine tasting. Chaboche’s farm La Plantation is one such farm that offers tastings, as well as Starling Farm. Local shops and restaurants in Kampot even offer the chance to try pepper ice cream, or pepper cookies!
If those options don’t appeal to you, one of the most commonly enjoyed dishes in Kampot that celebrates the pepper is the Kampot pepper crab, which can be found in restaurants around the city. There is also lok lak, a Cambodian dish of marinated beef, served with red rice (made with tomato paste), tomato, and a pepper and lime dipping sauce.
A Turbulent History of Kampot Pepper
Pepper is originally native to the Indian subcontinent, specifically from the state of Kerala. Around 800 years ago, pepper was brought to South-East Asia, and began to grow in the Kampot and Kep provinces of Cambodia. This pepper first caught the attention of French colonialists in the late 19th century, who recognised the potential to create their own peppercorn farms and ship it home. They set up the first large-scale plantations, built on tall bamboo poles to support the vines.
The French continued to export pepper back to France for the first half of the 20th century, with 8000 tons leaving Cambodia every year. It became France’s principle supplier of pepper, and was known as poivre Indochine. Then, in the 1970s, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime brought Cambodia, and the world of Kampot pepper to a crashing halt. Pepper was deemed to be symbol of colonial rule, and farmers were forced to grow rice instead, or forced to fight.
Even after the Khmer Rouge fell, it took many years to return the haphazard rice farms back to pepper plantations. The pepper farmers only began resuming their work in the 1990s, producing just 4 tonnes of pepper per year.
How Much Pepper Does Kampot Produce?
Despite Kampot’s growing reputation for high quality pepper, exports are still relatively low compared to other pepper producers. Around 70 to 100 tonnes of pepper are produced every year from Kampot. But, this pales compared to Vietnam’s non-organic farms, which produce a stunning 150,000 tonnes per year, 34% of the world’s total. Brazil produces around 73,000 tonnes per year, and Indonesia 36,000 tonnes.
Next time you pick up your pepper shaker, take a moment to see where it came from. If you’re lucky, you might be eating Kampot Pepper. The world’s finest pepper has a long and rich history, and the industry still has a long way to come to recover from colonialism and the Khmer Rouge. Today, Kampot pepper is recognised for the hard work of its farmers, resulting in a deserved title of the “tabletop standard of all France.” And of course, if you’re visiting Cambodia, it’s certainly worthwhile visiting Kampot, if only to taste the peppercorns, visit the farms and chat with the farmers, and bring home some incredible pepper to enjoy at home.