The Kampot pepper is famous in the best kitchens all around the world. Farmed since the 13th century in Cambodia, it is during the protectorate that the French realized the potential of the Kampot area, giving a subtle taste to the pepper that lingers on one’s tongue. The hills of Kampot along the Cambodian coast offer an iodized air and rainy climate, and the quartz and iron give the right balance of minerals to the soil. This terroir justifies that the Kampot pepper benefits from a Protected Geographical Indication that about 350 pepper farms, producing the precious spice, can claim.
Pepper grows naturally in the jungle, and its natural environment is reproduced on the farm: the pepper plant is tied around a pole to mimic lianas, the shade of the trees is provided by dried grass around and above the fields, and canals are dug to make sure the rain water keeps flowing. For fertilizing, a mix of cow dung and bat excrements from the nearby caves is used. “On the farm, we need to wait three years for the first harvest, and the plant can be used until it is about 17 years of age”, explains Sothy, the Cambodian owner of Sothy’s pepper farm, one of the organic farms on the hills behind Kampot and the fishing village of Kep.
“We produce black, red and white pepper”, she continues. Between March and June, all the pepper is harvested at the very specific moment when about 20% of the pepper has turned red while the rest is still green on the cluster. Then it is processed differently to obtain each kind:
- The green pepper is the fresh one and can be used only locally as it can be kept for just a few days.
- The subtle black pepper is dried green pepper.
- The fruity and slightly sweet red pepper is about 20% of what is harvested. Half of it is put to dry as is, and the other half is used to produce white pepper.
- The white pepper is the red pepper that is soaked in water for a couple of days and rubbed to get rid of its skin, giving it a slightly less spicy taste.
The drying lasts for 5 to 8 days.
It is followed by the delicate sorting: every pepper grain must be checked. For the white pepper, no skin can be left around the grain. For the black pepper, the whole skin must still be around each grain. This sorting process is very time consuming and can be done during 9 months, providing work for the full year to 12 workers on the farm.
Under the French colonial times, the Kampot pepper production averaged 3000 tons per year, about 50 times more than today. A luxury product, under the ruthless communist regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s, all the plantations got destroyed. It is only for the past few years that pepper planters come back to their lands to practice their ancestral know-how. “Today, we produce about 1,5kg of pepper per tree, 80% black, 10% red and 10% white. This is because we are organic. In other farms, the production can be up to 7 times more”, Sothy describes.
After having tasted every colour of pepper from the very spicy green one on the tree to the dry black, red and white grains, we are looking forward to following the pepper trail, leading us to a local Khmer restaurant of Kampot where the best loc lac can be tasted, one of the signature pepper dish of the Cambodian cuisine…
- If you want to live this experience, visit Sothy’s pepper farm.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!