Chef's, cuisine experts and foodies the world over have hot debates about where the best of the best of the ultimate king of spices: pepper can be found. I have it on good authority that the most highly prized pepper in the world can be found in Cambodia. But of course, this was told to me by an Irishman so I'll have to take his world for it.
Vietnam is the biggest producer but old Irish says the best pepper is found in this little village in Cambodia called Kampot. Famous for top chef's most highly prized pepper, this is where the hot tropical weather is perfect for the pepper vines to thrive producing an intense round flavour.
I felt like Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk as huge towering columns of green drew my eyes vertically straight up to the skies looking for the top. It's something of a treat to experience such an exotic forest draping its red drupes (strings of peppercorns) all around you creating something like a wonderland. The walkways in between felt more intimate somehow, quite unlike anything or any other farm I've explored or experienced so far in my life.
A deep jungle green, these lush flowering vines are quite the sight, enticing you to discover more about the worlds most used and traded spice. Although producing long spikes of flowers not all form into peppercorns. Old Irish says that less than half are successful during the pollination process transforming them into peppercorns.
Bees and bugs, brightly coloured butterflies and small birds, all of these are the peppers best friend pollinating them the natural way in organic harmony. You see, at Sothy's Pepper Farm, it's all eco-friendly, organic and done the natural way. No heavy pesticides, herbicides or fungicides to harm the wildlife or damage the delicate pepper producing ecosystem.
This has earned them the prestigious ECOCERT stating all of their pepper is biologically produced (the natural way with no interference from man) and environmentally friendly.
Green pepper, red pepper, white pepper and black pepper both whole and ground are produced on this eco friendly farm how nature intended it. By the will of mother nature and her wonderful pollinators: birds, bugs and bees flitting and zipping around adding to the natural atmosphere.
The tranquility of wandering this maze of towering columns adds to the appeal of such a visit and honestly, when they said we were touring a pepper farm I thought 'oh yay' and was expecting to be bored out of my mind. So, imagine my surprise when I was a little blown away with the beauty and its wonderful eco-friendly message. Yes, even when a bird nearly flew into my head, it just reinforced that eco-friendly message as my friend laughed at my startled jump backwards. Although I choose to believe that the birds were on their lunch break and playing hide n seek zooming around looking for a good spot not watching where they were going.
Which gave me an idea. Who doesn't like playing hide n seek with friends in a giant green maze...I know I do! So, of course my inner child came out and turning I said to my laughing friend 'hey V, look at that' and ran off in the direction I pointed. So, here she is, my beautiful friend V looking for me. All she heard were giggles and to this day I still think she loved it as much as I did despite the blazing heat and yes, I will grow up one day but not anytime soon. We had great fun.
Fun fact: did you know black pepper is really just dried green pepper? That's why the flavour is so intense and lovely.
Honestly, after we finished playing silly buggers and were wandering around listening to the Irishman, I fell in love with this unique tropical farm. Something so extraordinary doesn't cross your path everyday.
Irish's love of pepper took him by surprise as well. Originally, he'd gone to work on the farm for a few weeks as one of those farm stay experiences and fell so in love with that sea of green, he'd been there for six months and was planning to stay for years. Now his love of pepper is a deep and unbidden love that I feel will last a lifetime so I believe him when he says that Kampot produces the most highly prized king of spices.
This man, wise in all things pepper explained to us that these green peppercorns are the unripe fruit. When they are cooked and dried it is these that make up the most traded spice in the world - black pepper.
Red pepper is the mature fruits producing a more complex and mellow flavour. These are harvested as soon as one or two of the fruits turn red at the base otherwise they fall off, lose pungency and are lost forever quickly ruined under the equatorial sun.
White pepper is actually the mature (red) ripe fruit seeds of the pepper plant with the darker skin stripped away. They do this by soaking the ripe red pepper and after about a week, rubbing them together ridding them of all flesh. The seed is then dried in huge baskets under the hot tropical sun.
Who knew pepper was so versatile.. or so interesting! Listening to this man passionately explain about his newly found love for the king of spices sucks you in, interesting you even if you turned up expecting to be bored. His passion rubs off a little and after all the interesting fun facts, gorgeous scenery, playing hide n seek amongst the vines and wandering around it's time for a little rest.
That's when you pull up a hammock and laze away in the shade of the midday heat. Great conditions for growing the pepper, but I prefer to laze in the shade as the sun hits its apex. I swear you can hear it grow and if you are quiet and still enough you know what... I swear I could see it growing too. If you don't believe me then pop into to see old Irish, I'm sure he'd love to see you and share his pepper passion. Oh, and make sure you take a friend to go play hide n seek amongst the king of spices. It truly feels like another world.