The most valuable pepper in the world? (2023)

(Image credit:

Andia/Getty Images


The most valuable pepper in the world? (1)

By Robert Reid16 January 2020

It wasn't until the late 1990s, long after the Khmer Rouge had fallen from power, that local farmers (many with generations of peppercorns growing in their blood) returned to their roots.


The recent reappearance of a flowering vine growing on stilts in southeastern Cambodia is the result of a local strategy devised with the best of intentions. But the road to the farms is not paved at all.

Awaken the palate and enhance the flavor of other foods.

I learned it in a tunnel of dust, riding my motorcycle between tuk-tuks on red dirt roads. When I stopped to get a dust mask, the scene was breathtaking: water buffalo wading through flooded rice fields, past lush hills dotted with bat-filled caves, and ruins older than Angkor Wat. Before them, on the outskirts of the city of Kampot, stood local farms whose quartz-rich soil produces the best organic peppercorns in the world.

At least eight centuries ago, local people began cultivating this pepper vine, native to Kerala, India, and which had spread to Southeast Asia. But “Kampot pepper”, as it is now called, only became a global product once the French colonizers accustomed their taste buds to it. In the late 18th century, the French established plantations, growing peppercorns on 10-foot bamboo poles, then exporting them in vast quantities back home, where (as the late Anthony Bourdain cooed on his television show No Reservations) they were “ table standard. "It became for all of France."

The most valuable pepper in the world? (2)

Kampot pepper has been granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the World Trade Organization (Source: Robert Reid)

In the 1970s, however, it became brutal.Khmer Rouge regimehe saw peppercorns as a symbol of colonialism and forced farmers to grow rice instead. It wasn't until the late 1990s, long after the Khmer Rouge had fallen from power, that local farmers (many with generations of peppercorns growing in their blood) returned to their roots. Farmers back then were impoverished, so they went back to what they knew: the same farming practices that had guided their families for generations, and almost all of them did it on small plots.

You may also be interested in:
A national cuisine that stands out at breakfast.
The hidden temple of the Cambodian jungle
The vast underground world of Vietnam

Although Kampot pepper prices peaked when red pepper sold for $25/kg in 2014 and have fallen slightly since then (largely because cheaper Vietnamese pepper has taken over the market worldwide in recent years), farmers here point to the enduring appeal of the superior quality of Kampot pepper as a selling point, especially among European buyers. Everything is organic as it is run by the locals.Kampot Pepper Promotion Associationrequirements, with the perfect amount of sun and fertile soil to make it a pepper worth paying extra for.

In 2010, this “returned” pepper received Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status from the World Trade Organization and became to pepper what champagne is to sparkling wine or Prosciutto di Parma to ham.

But is it really?He¿Intestine?

Admission: I'm not a “foodie”. I can say that I prefer pepper to salt, but that's where my knowledge of seasoning ends. I found my way to the legendary Kampot pepper only because I was looking for a low-key getaway to unwind from the non-stop hustle and bustle of my home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The most valuable pepper in the world? (3)

One of the region's most famous dishes is Kampot pepper crab (Source: Robert Reid)

Kampot, a city of nearly 50,000 just a few miles inland from the Gulf of Thailand, is a place with enough hustle and bustle to not be a "backwater," but quiet enough to walk across the street without fear of heavy traffic. It's easy to see why several hundred expats call it home.

Low-rise French colonial buildings and Chinese-style shops line a breezy waterfront against the backdrop of the winding mountains of Bokor National Park. Daily sunset cruises ply the river, as trekkers walk alongside monkeys, abseil down limestone cliffs, kayak or stand-up paddleboard on the river, or visit the nearby coastal town of Kep, with its modest brown sand beach and famous crab market.

After arriving by bus via Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, I stopped for a lunchtime refreshment at a street stall called Street Coffee, run by So Sokha, a 60-year-old retiree who moved here from Phnom Penh and he mainly makes coffee for the family conversation that accompanies it.

To get a local's perspective, I asked him if he could tell the difference between cheap and good pepper. He praised the quality of the Kampot and how easy it was to tell it apart from a lower quality pepper.

“When you taste Kampot pepper, it is spicy at first. Then it calms down, very calmly, like flowers on the tongue, ”she said, pointing to her mouth. "That's when you know you've got the real thing."

The most valuable pepper in the world? (4)

Sokha brews coffee primarily for entertainment (Source: Robert Reid)

Kampot pepper is harvested from February to May and comes in several varieties: black pepper is typically used for red meat; red pepper for desserts; and white pepper for fish, salads and sauces. Green peppercorns have a more subtle flavor than black peppercorns and are used in some seafood and chicken dishes.

Several foreign-owned pepper farms have recently sprung up in the countryside offering guided tours and pepper-spiced meals (locally operated farms do not typically offer guided tours).

Bo-Baum, a working farm and shop, is run by a Scottish-Khmer family and started as a happy coincidence. Looking for a place to build a farmhouse, the couple became so enthralled with the local produce that they began growing peppercorns on their land, employing a dozen workers to tend the three acres of vines.

It's amazing how it captivates people.

“Anyone who tastes Kampot pepper wants to know more,” Christopher Gow, co-owner of Bo Tree, told me as we sat in front of the store with his young son strolling around us. "It's amazing how it captivates people."

Bo Tree's pepper tasting proceeded with the vigor of wine. I breathed in a nether peppery scent and then dropped some on my tongue. I felt a slight tingling, the effect wore off after about 40 seconds. Then I tried Bo Tree's Black Kampot Pepper. It was an instant new sensation that settled on my tongue and then expanded into a tingling dance that filled my mouth for several minutes.

"It's not just the taste of pepper," Gow explained. "Awaken the palate and enhance the flavor of other foods."

Pepper is used here in a variety of dishes, from savory to sweet and from simple to sophisticated. Kampot Pie and Ice Cream Palace sells a single scoop of creamy red pepper ice cream for 75 cents (locals use both the Cambodian riel and the US dollar). upstream,greenhouse, a riverside resort of thatched-roof bungalows and excellent restaurant, offers freshly baked chocolate pepper cookies and a full "Pepper Discovery" menu.

The most valuable pepper in the world? (5)

Kampot pepper plantations produce between 70 and 100 tons of peppers per year (Source: Robert Reid)

And it is not only used as food. A spa for women only,Banteay Srey Project-- named after a Khmer temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva -- offers a pepper scrub treatment, though manager Channy Oucki explained that's not exactly a new idea, as locals traditionally use pepper as a skin treatment to help women gain strength after childbirth.

"It's like the feeling after applying Tiger Balm," Oucki said. "It feels good. It might make you sweat a bit. But you feel very, very fresh."

Still, Kampot pepper crab is one of the region's most famous dishes. At Kep Fish Market, visitors can choose their own freshly caught soft-shell crab, then take it to the chefs to be carved up. Fry it in a giant wok with garlic, onion, and (of course) local peppercorns. and serve them on a platter. For around $5 it's a pretty good lunch.

How does the premium pepper grow?

Peppercorn vines grow on poles arranged in carefully demarcated plots. Green peppercorns first appear in September and then ripen in the new year. Farmers hand-pick the peppercorns and dry some in the sun for a few days, turning them black. White peppercorns are black peppercorns that are soaked in water and the shell is removed. Two months later, it's time for red peppercorns, which are peppercorns that fully ripen on the vine until they are a brilliant purple.

My dusty journey took me to a few farms, starting with the biggest and most publicized, the Franco-Belgian operation.The plantation, which employs 150 local farmers (more during harvest).

The most valuable pepper in the world? (6)

Pepper vines grow on poles arranged in carefully demarcated plots (Source: Andia/Getty Images)

Limestone steps lead through swaying lemongrass and restored traditional Khmer-style buildings overlooking Secret Lake, set behind a hill. The plantation restaurant serves French and Khmer style dishes.Lok LakSpecialty beef seasoned with black, red and white pepper from the farm. Free tours and tastings are offered in an 80-year-old pillared dining room once used by a nearby monastery. (A ride on a water buffalo cart is extra.)

Owners Nathalie Chaboche and her husband Guy also had no intention of becoming pepper farmers when they first visited the area in 2013.

"In Europe we used Kampot pepper, but we had no idea how it grows," he explained. "When we first visited a pepper plantation, we immediately decided to find land where we could grow it."

Last year his plantation produced 10 tons of peppercorns; this spring 23: about a quarter of the yield of the entire region.


All of this may seem encouraging for the success of this resurgent cottage industry, but one question remains: after the Khmer Rouge survived, can small farms survive large-scale farming?

So far, the economic impact of the revival of the pepper industry in Cambodia has not been a turnaround, as the relative amount of Kampot pepper grown pales in comparison to other pepper varieties around the world. For example, Kampot produces 70 to 100 tons of pepper per year, up from four tons a few decades ago (and there is already a surplus), while Vietnam's low-quality, non-organic pepper industry produces 150,000 tons per year. anus.

The most valuable pepper in the world? (7)

Green peppercorns have a more subtle flavor than black ones (Credit: Andia/Getty Images)

To help local farmers with plots of one or two hectares to distribute their harvest around the world,agricultural linkwas founded in 2006 to bring farmers together to maximize their profits and market their products in Europe, which still buys half of the annual production. Its CEO, Sébastien Lesieur, took me to meet one of these farmers to better understand the decades of hands-on experience it takes to make this organic spice that foodies have loved so much.

"There are a lot of interesting farms here," Lesieur commented as we drove. "This is where all the IGP farms started."

Passing other farms, he stopped by vine-covered posts to look for possible effects of mold that had appeared on the ground after a monsoon a few years ago.

"It could be a problem in two or three years," he said.

We stopped at a small lot with an open plan building with a thatched roof and a few plastic chairs. Here we meet Chan Deng, a 60-year-old farmer with a black dog he calls "Mr. Black." Hands folded in front of him, Deng led us across a small plank bridge onto the muddy path between rows of vines just beginning to sprout green.

Each of his 500 stakes needs to be watered at the rate of seven to eight liters per day, which he and another farmer do, carrying water from their pond by hand. His farm produced 200 kilos last year, which makes it a "very good year."

The most valuable pepper in the world? (8)

Kampot pepper returned after the Khmer Rouge lost power (Source: Andia/Getty Images)

"I learned that from my father when I was young," said Deng, who uses pepper in his meals every day. “Now my son is planting nearby. And my grandson is starting to study.

And so the tradition is passed on to the next generation.

Each box of Kadode Black Pepper is carefully packaged by an individual farmer and then coded so you can view online the name and photo of the farmer who grew this organic spice for you. (Mine is from Srey Samon and his family from four of his).

Now when I grind my Kampot pepper at home, I think of Samon and all the farmers in Kampot who are reviving their traditions and how to really enjoy the taste of the best pepper in the world.

That was worth more than a little dust.

Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking themFacebook, or continue to follow usGoreYInstagram.

If you liked this story,Sign up for the weekly feature newslettertitled "The Essential List". A handpicked selection of BBC travel, culture, work life and future stories delivered to your inbox every Friday.



Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Greg O'Connell

Last Updated: 23/08/2023

Views: 6177

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (42 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Greg O'Connell

Birthday: 1992-01-10

Address: Suite 517 2436 Jefferey Pass, Shanitaside, UT 27519

Phone: +2614651609714

Job: Education Developer

Hobby: Cooking, Gambling, Pottery, Shooting, Baseball, Singing, Snowboarding

Introduction: My name is Greg O'Connell, I am a delightful, colorful, talented, kind, lively, modern, tender person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.