KAMPOT pepper was once a world famous commodity, shipped all the way out to Europe, coveted by the most venerated chefs, and a must-have at the tables of the finest restaurants, its reputation was second to none. Then the Khmer Rouge happened, and Kampot’s pepper plantations were ripped up during the following years of senseless revolution; the farms were converted to rice paddies, or simply left to rot, bringing an end to the once thriving industry until the 1990s.
As part of a day trip from Kampot (which also took me to Kep and some beautiful and ancient caves filled with centuries old shrines and carvings) my tuk tuk driver took me to visit a working pepper plantation.
This particular plantation is located near Phnom Voir mountain, about a 20 minute journey from the crumbling seaside town of Kep, and hidden away down winding country lanes, rather unnervingly near the railway line where 3 Western tourists were abducted and murdered by the Khmer Rouge back in the dark days of the regime. Fortunately those days have long since passed, and the country’s railway system is no longer in use, so after a brief history lesson from the driver, I arrived at the farm.
The owner of the plantation gave me a talk on the history of pepper farming in the region. He told me that he had come back to this land after the Khmer Rouge was ousted from Cambodia, and began farming the pepper using methods passed down through the generations. He then explained what made Kampot pepper so special. The use of chemicals on the plants is strictly prohibited, and the unique climate of the region makes replicating the growth of the pepper difficult elsewhere.
We were told to pick a few pods from the plants and try them – they certainly pack a punch, a small nibble was enough to set my tongue on fire for the ride back to my guesthouse!
You can buy Kampot pepper to take home with you – you can purchase it from a plantation, or if you’re staying in Kampot, Blissful Guesthouse (an excellent little place with a lovely garden and on-site restaurant) also sells it. The pepper is available in green, red, black and white variations, all with different tastes and textures, though because of its booming popularity, it’s not the cheapest purchase, though for the foodies among you, it’s more than worth parting with a few dollars for – and certainly cheaper than buying the imported stuff back at home!
Note: genuine Kampot pepper includes a GI logo to confirm its authenticity. Some sellers will peddle pepper produced in other regions of Cambodia or even Vietnam as ‘Kampot’ pepper.