Travel: A visit to a Cambodian pepper plantation (+video)
Starling Farms outside of Kampot, Cambodia, grows and harvests by hand the black, red, and white pepper that has become a culinary delicacy among chefs around the world.
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“See that white house over there?” Mark said, as we continued chatting. He was pointing far out to the right. “That was the Khmer Rouge headquarters for southeastern Cambodia.”Skip to next paragraph
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This used to be a dangerous place, indeed. Before the murderous reign of the Maoist Khmer Rouge, American B-52s had plastered the valley with bombs in an attempt to disrupt the Viet Cong’s supply routes in the late stages of the Vietnam War. The so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail had led right through this valley. It was a moonscape of craters when he got here some 13 years ago, he said, as we surveyed what was now an unbroken green expanse. He had chosen one of the craters to serve as the basement of a new outbuilding, in fact. But when the mechanical excavator hit something that went “Clunk!” all the workers had panicked and run, thinking it was an unexploded bomb. It was a bomb – but only a piece of one: the nosecone. He showed it to us; rusty, brown, and bent, but recognizable
We stood amid racks of various kinds of pepper for sale, in vacuum-sealed packets and souvenir wooden boxes and silk pouches. Pepper grinders, too. Four kinds of pepper are produced here, all from the same plant: The fresh green peppercorns, the unripe berries of the pepper plant, are good only for a few days after picking. They have a fresh, citrusy taste, not as strong as the dried black pepper. We’d tried some in the field. (Very good with seafood, we were told; especially the famous crabs caught in nearby Kep.) Riper green peppercorns are harvested from mature vines when the berries start to turn yellow. Dried in the sun on bamboo mats for a few days, they turn black, then are sterilized and packed. Dried correctly, they last many years. But once ground, they lose flavor rapidly – hence the importance of a pepper grinder. Black pepper is by far the most popular kind.
The red peppercorns on the mostly-green strings of berries (Mark called them “drupes”) are separated out by hand. Red pepper is rare, and not as well known. It has a sweeter, some say a fuller taste, and isn’t as hot as black pepper. (Shoppers beware: Some of the "red pepper" sold in supermarkets is actually a weird dried berry from Brazil.) Half the fully ripe pepper berries are sun-dried and become red pepper; half are soaked in water for a few days, which removes the reddish skin. What’s left are white peppercorns, which have a much different taste. Removing the skin removes some of the flavor components. White pepper is most often used when black or red pepper would spoil the visual effect, as in a white sauce.
Kampot is famous for its pepper, and it’s been grown here for at least 1,000 years. A Chinese traveler chronicled pepper cultivation here in 1200; the Chinese were the first to recognize the unique flavor of Cambodia's pepper, according to the Starling Farm’s website. Mark said the sought-after flavor was a product of the soil here, mostly.
His wife, Anna, cut up a mango for us while we decided what to buy. We were sort of in a hurry, now; it was a long ride back. We bought a few small bags of pepper as gifts, and a bag of mixed peppercorns for ourselves. I bought a big bag of what I thought at the time were black peppercorns – only to discover when I got back home – to my delight – that it was a big bag of dried red peppercorns.
A rare souvenir from a rare, enlightening, and bumpy trip.
Owen Thomas is the deputy editor for the weekly Monitor magazine.
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