Confined to just a pocket-sized corner of south-western Cambodia, Kampot pepper has emerged as arguably the world’s best. One might think that connoisseurs were appraising fine wines when they describe the pepper’s four main varieties – green, black, red and white – as “virile, aristocratic and almost aphrodisiacal’’ with “subtle notes of caramel, vanilla and honey”. Unsurprisingly, the spice is also becoming increasingly sought after; earlier this year, it was sold for a jaw-dropping US$444 per kilo in Germany.
While it might be enjoying its moment in the sun, Kampot pepper is hardly new to the shelves. Chinese travellers first made note of the “king of spice’’ in the 13th century; pepper also boomed during the French colonial era. But under the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s, Kampot’s farms were abandoned, their cultivators forced into labour camps where many were executed or died from disease. Recovery was slow: as late as 2000, only two tonnes of the spice were being grown.
But the founding of the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association in 2010 – to assist in marketing and to police strict production standards – has spurred a renaissance. More recently, in 2016, the European Union also awarded the spice Protected Geographical Indication status.
“This designation not only recognises the singularity of this pepper, it also helps to protect it from imitation,’’ says Nathalie Chaboche, a 54-year-old Frenchwoman who, along with her Belgian husband Guy Porre, started La Plantation farm four years ago. Surrounding their 50-hectare estate, amid lush hills rolling towards the sea, lies what she describes as “ideal terroir’’ for pepper.
All these factors are proving to be good news for the once poverty-stricken growers. Farm gate prices have tripled over the past seven years, and more farmers have switched to planting Cambodia’s “black gold”.
Nguon Lay, an energetic Cambodian who heads the association, says only 10 hectares were farmed by 100 families when the group was formed; today, the number has risen to 210 hectares, with 387 families involved.
La Plantation recently started exporting to the United States, Canada and Russia, and has also experimented with new products like fermented pepper. Its Kampot pepper rum has also been a hit.
Nguon Lay is particularly optimistic. Next year, the fourth-generation pepper farmer reckons production should jump to 150 tonnes from this year’s 100. “I expect that Kampot pepper will remain famous,’’ he says. “Growers will enjoy higher income and be able to improve their lives.’’
Where To Savour It
The Sugar Palm, Siem Reap – Inspired by her mother’s cooking, Cambodian celebrity chef Kethana Dunnet uses the spice in dishes like tender squid stir-fried with Kampot pepper.
Malis Restaurant, Phnom Penh – Helmed by famous chef Luu Meng, this restaurant serves modern Cambodian cuisine. Here, the pepper is used to spice up desserts like the Kampot pepper brûlée.
Elephant Bar, Phnom Penh – Try the heady Kampot pepper cocktail, served alongside Kampot pepper banana chips, at this iconic bar located within the Raffles Hotel Le Royal.
Kampot Literary Festival
It’s not just pepper that’s spicing up Kampot. This year’s edition of the literary event (1-6 Nov) will feature and eclectic lineup of writers, storytellers, artists, poets and musicians. Notable speakers include Wild Swans author Jung Chang, Man Booker Prize finalist Esi Edugyan and local food writer Kek Soon.
This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.