Pepper & Spice & All Things Nice
A Taste of Kampot.
Some of the best pepper in the world is grown here, but Kampot is also famous for its durian fruit, and it also produces ten’s of thousands of tonnes of sea salt each year. This once sleepy town, near the coast of Cambodia, is waking up to the potential of the tourist dollar and it's easy to see why. There is plenty to see and do here with its rich history, beautiful scenery, proximity to the coast, and an interesting mix of food production industries to visit. It's a foodies’ kind of heaven if you are into learning about where food comes from and different kinds of farming techniques, or even just for the opportunity to see some amazing areas of the countryside. I jumped at the chance to take a tour around Kampot Province to check out some of these vital industries and I also got the chance to chat to the locals and taste some delicious traditional treats.
Kampot and its surrounding areas commenced sea salt production at the time of the Khmer Rouge. Although the quality back then was relatively ordinary, the salt that is produced today is of a high standard. I visited one particular area on the outskirts of Kampot where the salt fields stretch as far as the eye can see. Production had ceased for the rainy season, however, once the skies clear and the rain dries up, Kampot can produce up to 140,000 tonnes of this delicious white seasoning each year. They also harvest the “fleur de sel”, or flower of salt, which is like the crème de la crème of sea salt, not used for cooking but to flavour food just prior to eating. It’s much less salty than the rest of the sea salt and I got to try some later in the day at the pepper farm. They had used the fleur de sal to season a mix of peanuts, peppercorns, and kaffir lime leaves, a real taste sensation which you could easily make at home.
Leaving the salt fields behind it was time to take to the bumpy unsealed backroads through the local communities that make up part of this delightful province and see how the locals live. There had only been a little rain so far and already parts of these narrow dirt tracks were already muddy and slippery and I could only imagine how difficult it must be to get around in the height of the monsoonal rains. Before long, my guide pulled us up in a local village for a water stop and to taste what I can only describe as Cambodia’s answer to the donut, but better. Nom Kroch is a scrumptious sweet treat made from a rice flour dough that encases a sweet mung bean paste, which is then fried in a wok until golden brown and crispy on the outside and soft, sweet, and delicious in the centre. I managed to stop myself at one this time but my guide scoffed down 3 before we took off to visit some organic vegetable gardens.
The organic gardens lay at the foot of a limestone mountain that contains a small temple, built in the 5th Century. Before making the sweaty trek up there I took a stroll around the garden which was growing bok choy, spring onions, and some other green leafy Asian vegetables. We started chatting to one of the workers who was hand-picking the small caterpillars and grasshoppers off the plants. Painstaking and backbreaking work, especially in the heat and humidity that rainy season brings. My guide explained that these vegetables, which have a few holes in them where the pests had nibbled, were the most popular at the markets because the locals can tell that they are organic. They only use cow manure as fertiliser, no pesticides, and all watering is done by hand as they have no irrigation system.
It's great to see these organic farm practices here and many of the locals I have spoken to support organic farming if they can. A short time after leaving the garden we pulled up on the side of the road at a durian orchard. I had tasted this unusual fruit recently in Siem Reap and the Cambodians love it, especially the fruit grown here in Kampot. They all talk about it as the best durian you can eat, and in Kampot they have a giant durian in the middle of a roundabout in town. The climate and soil composition here make for ideal conditions to grow this popular fruit which is said to be sweeter and can fetch twice the price of durian grown in Thailand and Vietnam. It is coming to the end of the season right now and this lonely durian (pictured below) was the only one left on the trees around us and my guide joked about stuffing it in his backpack as we left.
Rice is a staple food in Cambodia and is eaten usually with every meal and while Battambang is the rice belt of the country, this crop is grown everywhere, including here in Kampot. While other areas may produce up to three crops per year, usually there is only one harvest annually in Kampot. The rice fields add a beautiful bright green hue to the countryside and these crops will be ready to harvest in the coming months. I have to admit, rice is one of my favourite foods and I usually eat it everyday back home. So being in Cambodia, where I get to eat it 3 times a day if I want is awesome if it's not rice it's rice noodles or some kind is rice snack. Another thing I eat a lot of is pepper and I was excited to see the plantation and learn more about this wonderful spice.
The last stop of the tour was an organic pepper farm and I was left in the expert hands of one of the plantation’s local guides to explain how they grow the world famous Kampot Pepper. Although it turns out that it's not just pepper they grow here, they also produce the most fragrant turmeric I have ever smelled, and long pepper, which I have never seen before. The long pepper looked like the shape of a chilli and smells and taste, to me, like a cross between regular pepper and Szechuan pepper. This variety grows on a vine the same as the round pepper but will produce within 9 months, whereas the regular variety isn't harvested until the plant is 2 years old.
Red, green, white, and, black pepper all come from the same vine and the green pepper is picked young ,before it changes colour. Red pepper is picked later, once it matures, white pepper has the red husk removed, and black pepper is produced by boiling the red peppercorns. Pepper is believed to have been grown in this area since the 13th Century and production in 2018 is expected to yield some 500 tonnes of peppery goodness. The tour here was both informative and interesting, as was the other destinations I visited. I just love getting off the beaten track and learning about other cultures and how they live. If you would like to live like a local for a while, check out my Food Adventure Tours of Cambodia.