Kampot pepper is highly regarded. From the foot of the mountains to the country’s southern coast, in Cambodia 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 (paarticularly quartz) and rainy weather in the high-elevation areas near Kampot and Kep are perfect for growing pepper. Cambodia’s pepper industry went into a major decline when the Khmer Rouge regime’s policies were in place in the 1970’s, but today it’s experiencing a renaissance. Sorn Sothy, the former owner of Sothy’s pepper farm, planted his vines in 2007. Sothy previously worked as a midwife in Phnom Penh. “I had always dreamed of having my own garden, to get away from the city,” she says.
The pepper vines take three years to produce anything, but “they can grow for twenty years if cared for them. Pests are a major problem because of the climate, but growers use natural pesticides and fertlisers like cow manure or 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 sun. After reaching maturity, the peppers can be harvested each year from February to May. The peppercorns are removed from the stem, boiled for two minutes, and then dried in the sun for a week. Black peppercorns are actually green when harvested, but they change colour whilst drying. White peppercorns are simply black pepper with the skin removed, so they aren’t quite as spicy. Red peppercorns are green peppercorns that have been left on the vine for four months longer. They retain their colour when dried and are the sweetest and most expensive variety because they take longer to mature. All colours of Kampot pepper have a jasmine-like flavour.
Cambodia has a centuries’ long tradition of growing pepper which precedes the great civilisation of the kings of Angkor. The Chinese explorer Tchéou Ta Kouan wrote about pepper production in Cambodia as early as the 13th century. In 1873-1874, war erupted in the Aceh province of Indonesia and unable to stop the Dutch army, the sultan of Aceh – not wanting to leave this wealth in the hands of his enemies – burned down his pepper plantation. Part of the production then moved to Cambodia, specifically in the Kampot region. After the civil war, the pepper producers came back on their land and started to farm pepper using traditional methods inherited from their ancestors and passed from generation to generation. You will find, as so many have before you, that Kampot black pepper delivers a strong and delicate aroma. Its taste, which can range from intensely spicy to mildly sweet, reveals hints of flower, eucalyptus and suits all kind of dishes, in particular grilled fish. Today, we’re using it a fragrant chicken soup packed with vegetables, noodles and flavours.
- A small glug of olive oil
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 leek, finely sliced
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 1 litre of chicken stock
- 500g chicken breast, cut into chunks
- 100g of petite-pois
- A handful of dried mushrooms, soaked
- 200g of bean sprouts
- 200g thin rice noodles
- 4 spring onions, chopped
- A good glug of light soy sauce
- A large pinch of good curry powder ( if you don’t make your own)
- A pinch of freshly milled Kampot pepper
- Salt to taste
Soak the dried mushrooms over night then drain and cut into thin strips. Heat the olive oil a large soup pan and add the carrot, leek and celery and sauté until softened. Sprinkle over the curry powder ( I use madras, but it is entirely up to you) and continue to sauté. Next add a litre of chicken stock together with the salt, kampot pepper, chicken and peas. Add the strips of mushroom and season with the light soy sauce. Bring to the boil then simmer gently for about 40 minutes. Finally add the bean sprouts and the rice noodles about 12 minutes before the end of cooking. Taste for seasoning and serve piping hot adding the spring onions for garnish. Add further condiments if needed at the table.