Pepper is believed to originate from southern India. But some chefs, including the late Anthony Bourdain and the Michelin-starred French chef Olivier Roellinger, have been drawn to pepper produced in Cambodia, specifically in the province of Kampot. That's where a near-ideal combination of sea, soil and climate produces a very aromatic, nuanced — and expensive — spice.
"It has a unique taste," says Nathalie Chaboche, whose La Plantation began planting in southern Kampot seven years ago and is now one of the province's biggest pepper producers, producing 25 tons last year, and employing 150 people full-time and another 150 as day laborers during the harvest season.
Chaboche, who is from France, has strong opinions when it comes to pepper.
"It should not be too spicy, because if it's too spicy, it just burns your mouth. Kampot pepper is not too spicy. It's mild-spicy," she says.
"It's like a wine," she explains. "You can taste it like a wine, and then you can keep the taste in your mouth for a very long time."
Cambodians have been growing the Kamchay and Lampong varieties of pepper — the kind known now as Kampot pepper — for centuries, but it didn't really become a significant cash crop until French colonialists started sending it back home in bulk in the early 1900s, when yearly production reached 8,000 tons, Chaboche says.
"During the French protectorate at the beginning of the 20th century, all the pepper used in France was completely Kampot at that time," she says. "It was called poivre Indochine, but it was grown in Kampot."
Chaboche didn't know any of this when she came to Cambodia eight years ago with her Belgian-born husband, Guy Porre, to start what she calls a "second life" after both left lucrative technology careers in Europe and the United States.
They came to this laid-back province on the Gulf of Thailand to look for a place to live quietly near the water. They decided on a whim to visit a pepper farm.
They were immediately hooked. There was just one problem.
"Yeah, we knew nothing about pepper," Porre admits. "We knew nothing about farming in general. We've always been in the software business."
They knew enough, however, to learn from the best — Cambodian farmers whose families have been growing pepper in the region for generations.
"They came to me in 2013 needing pepper vines," says 36-year-old Hon Thon, whose farm is about 25 miles from La Plantation. "They needed 2,000 vines, so I cut them from my farm and from some of my neighbors' farms and brought them here."
Now, more than 20,000 pepper vines grow on La Plantation's 99 acres of land, the vines wrapping like snakes around 12-foot wooden poles. Thon splits his time between working here and on his own farm.
He says there's good money in pepper — along with financial freedom not available to most day-wage earners.
"Owning a pepper farm is much better than being a construction worker," he says. "We own our own land, we can stop and take a holiday, nobody can control us. They don't work, they don't get paid. And yearly, we can make a lot more than they can."
Thon says he can earn as much as $13,000 a year from the pepper he grows — good money in a country where the annual GDP per capita is less than $2,000.
The pepper industry almost died during the the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. "My parents and my grandparents were forced to fight for the Khmer Rouge," Thon says. The murderous regime, which ruled from 1975-1979, "didn't allow people to plant because they needed them to fight."
When the fighting ended and the Khmer Rouge were defeated, some farmers, including Thon's relatives, returned to their lands and slowly nursed what vines remained back to health.
It took time. Twenty years ago, only a few tons of pepper were grown annually. Last year, the 400-plus members of the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association produced roughly 100 tons. The industry got a boost in 2016, when the European Union approved protected geographical indication status for Kampot pepper, a prestigious designation affirming that its origin is crucial to its quality.
"It means like Champagne, it can grow only in a special area," Chaboche says. "You can't compare Champagne with any other wine. It's not the same. Same with Kampot pepper. It has a unique taste, a unique aroma, that you can recognize."
At La Plantation, all the picking and watering is done by hand. So is the harvesting, which happens at different stages as the pepper matures on the vine.
The black, Chaboche says, crunching a peppercorn, is "not too spicy, but then you have also the taste developing in the mouth, a little bit of citrus, mint. It's a unique smell of Kampot pepper."
She then tastes the red Kampot pepper.
"We keep the fruit on the vines and wait until the peppercorns turn red, so it's fully mature peppercorns," Chaboche says. "So, when we smell, it's more fruity, smells a little bit of tobacco, and when we eat, this one is very sweet. So this one can be perfectly used with dessert, chocolate, fruit, on salads."
Black pepper, she says, is a little more spicy than red, and better with meat. The red costs more than the black. But neither comes close to the white peppercorns, which can cost as much as $100 per ounce in Europe or the U.S.
"It's coming from the red, collected corn by corn, and we remove the skin, so it's really the essence and the kernel of the pepper," she says, crunching into a white peppercorn. "The white one smells more like anise or herbs, and it's called by some Michelin chefs as the essence of pepper. Because it's really the inside of the pepper — and it's very tasty as well. It's used mainly for fish and seafood."
All members of the Kampot pepper promotion association are committed to growing their crops organically. Most farmers don't own a lot of land, but do have knowledge passed down through generations.
"I am a fourth-generation pepper farmer," says Nguon Lay, president of the association. "My father, his father, and his father before that. The problem right now is we produce a lot of pepper, but we have no market. So we grow it for what?" Smaller farmers often feel squeezed as larger producers, such as La Plantation, have come to dominate the market, and middlemen under-pay small farmers for the pepper they produce.
Chaboche says she understands the frustration. "I think it's very difficult for the small farmers, because some middlemen are coming and buying at cheap price and sometimes families don't have a choice and are selling their production at a low price," she says.
She says she and Porre are working to help small farmers "because they do a fantastic job, they are doing very good Kampot pepper. That's why we want to buy their production at a fair price and find a market for them."
The couple — who say they are in it for the long haul and have even acquired Cambodian citizenship — are looking to buy smaller farmers' production and market it as a second brand, and are aiding the pepper promotion association's effort to get fair trade certification for Kampot pepper, which would help the association's smaller members.
Protecting Kampot pepper from counterfeiting, Porre says, is also a key to its future success. He and others warn that cheaper, inferior Vietnamese pepper may be marketed or mixed with the local product, and is diluting Kampot pepper's coveted brand. Vietnam, Cambodia's neighbor, is the world's largest producer of pepper, producing more than 180,000 tons last year alone.
Consumers "have to be very, very careful when you buy Kampot pepper [that] you know to check that this product is coming from a legal source," Porre says.
Those who know the pepper best, of course, can tell right away if it's the real thing. "All I have to do is taste it to know if it's real Kampot pepper or Vietnamese pepper," grower Hon Thon says.
As for the quality of La Plantation's Kampot pepper versus his own farm's, "I can say they are both the same," he says, laughing. "I take care of both, so neither is more important. Good pepper is more important."