Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Quest for Spice

Kampot is a quiet southern town along the Kampong Bay River.  Its organization and architecture are rather European, characteristic of French Indochina.  Aspects of its cuisine are also tinged with elements of ‘”The Old Continent”, like the bread.  Oh yes, the bread.  Fortunately, its people were not French-ified.  Au contraire, they are, let’s say, Snoop-ified…laaaiiid back and full of smiles. 
Other than the unfortunate yearning for domination and subjugation, the French were in Cambodia for the same reason that Columbus sailed west, the quest for spice.  The fresh climate and rich soils of the southern provinces produce what many consider being among the best tasting black pepper in the World.  After hearing the myth and eventually savoring its subtle complexities, aromas and textures we needed to go to the source.  Get your helmets.


Kampot Korner



Bike Wash

Vanna Black leads us east on Route 33 into the valley, gingerly gliding through long stretches of village life.  A small shack serving up freshly pressed sugar cane juice prompts us to veer off the two-lane road.  A young girl prepares our guarapo served with a lofty dose of the local specialty, smiles.  Refreshed by the juice and invigorated by the hospitality we carry on.  A few minutes after passing the exit to Kep on the right, the entrance to a dirt road on our left is adorned with multiple signs reading “Pepper Farm”.  Following the arrows we continue along the road and in through a stretch of farms.  Some have rustic shacks to welcome their guests; others are full out spas and retreats in large fancy plantation houses.  Attracted by the former, we drive back down the road and turn into one of the first ones we had driven through, a much simpler operation.

Vanna in Black.  Biker Bebita in Pink.

Juice and Smiles

The young nephew welcomes us to his uncle’s farm and instructs us to park Vanna under the shade.  Pleasantries are exchanged accompanied by the now standard geography lesson when we are asked where we are from.  “No, no, not Portugal, Puuuu-errrr-ttoo Rrrrrriiii-ccccoo. The Caribbean? You know Cuba? Mexico? Well, close.”  (The references must change depending on the country.  In India and Nepal: West Indies, because they play cricket there.  But then they think we’re from Guyana and ask us how come we’re not dark.  Lao and Viet Nam: Cuba!  They recognize their fellow Comrades.  In Thailand:  They know. “Ohhhh, Miss Universe!”) 
The kid walks us into the neatly ordered grid of vines while he gives us a lecture on Pepper 101.  The vines are grown for three years, after which they are uprooted and new vines are planted.  Currently they are picking the last harvest from the older 3-year-old vines and also some from the middle-aged 1-year-old vines.  The youngest 3-month-old vines growing under the shade of dried palm fronds have yet to produce fruit.  As soon as the fruits start to mature, signaled by the appearance of at least one red fully ripened fruit in the bunch, the fruit-bearing spikes are delicately cut off with pruning shears, gardening scissors.  Each fruit is then carefully picked off from the bunch by hand, then washed, sorted and dried under Lorenzo’s blistering rays.  The fruits are sorted according to their color, green on one side, red on the other.  The green, not fully ripened, fruit is the most common and when dried it produces the more familiar black peppercorns.   The green fruit may also be heated and the skins removed before drying.  Once dried, you get white peppercorns, which have a slightly different taste than the black.  When the red fully ripened fruit is dried it produces, well, red peppercorns, which have a subtler flavor, not as strong as the black pepper.  Once dried, they are packed and sold to curious foodies like me who drove all the way out here for a condiment.  But, most of their production is sold to restaurants in Paris, which is where “The Uncle” is now, turning sun, water and soil into Euros.   

The Nephew

Pepper Grid


Green and Red

Clockwise: Red, Black and White

The high noon sun shines above.  We stick around the farm for a while to avoid Lorenzo’s fury and to soak up as many Cambodian smiles as we can.  As more customers arrive we make our way back into town leaving an intoxicating scent in our trails, a kilo and a half of pepper in our bag.  After a detour through Kep, a beach resort for the French in its heyday and now a ghost town, we reach town.  Vanna gives up and our exploration is cut short.  But not all is lost, our bounty is intact. 
We sit by the river and enjoy the view with a brew as my mind drifts away into Hungry’s kitchen thinking of all the things we’re going to cook up with all this spice.  Taste buds get ready. 

A Brew with a View

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