This is the world’s most expensive pepper

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I’ve been on a bit of a salt craze lately—from flake size to OCD flavor profiles—even going so far as to visit a geothermal salt farm in Northern Iceland. But then it hit me: I didn’t know enough about its pungent table mate—black pepper. The ubiquitous ying to salt’s yang. My answer was black and white, I needed to go to black pepper’s source. It is—after all—the world’s most common spice.

So, where better to find out about pepper than Cambodia? It might not be the most obvious answer, but on a recent trip to Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) with my friend Kwan Lui (the founder of At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy in Singapore), I got a once in a lifetime offer from the Gordon Ramsay of Cambodia, Chef Luu Meng. Did we want to visit a real-deal pepper farm with him the following day? Hell, yes. It seemed preordained.

The next day we drove two hours south to the farm, called La Plantation. It ended up being in Kampot, hallowed grounds for black pepper since the 13th century when France led the Chinese guided production and gobbled up most its harvest. The peppercorns from Kampot are known to be particularly pungent and laced with fruity aromas. In fact, the region has received a PGI (or Protected Geographical Indication) from the European Union, which essentially means the pepper is not only amazing but irreplaceable. Moments later, bouncing along a dirt road past wandering water buffalo and huts lazing in the sun, the farm appeared in front of us in the form of endless rows of vertical plantings that was more than reminiscent of the hedge maze in The Shining. The vines were covered with fresh peppercorns in clusters, like tiny bunches of grapes. I was astonished that there were different colors, some were green, some red—all on the same vines. Sure, I’d seen black, white, pink even green peppercorns before. But I thought they came from separate plants.

I’m not alone in knowing so little about pepper. For something as common as water, most people know nothing of its origins. The farm was a revelation. I met the owners, Nathalie and Guy Porre (French and Belgian, respectively, who recently became Cambodian citizens). “All the different types come from one plant,’’ said Nathalie, cracking a knowing smile. “It just depends on when you pick them and how you process them.” According to Nathalie, the pollination of the plants happens in the summer and the fruit starts to develop. “The kernels start to become hard in December,” she says. “From February to March we start hand picking the clusters.” The green and red are separated; there can be some of each color in a single cluster—the process can be painstakingly difficult. “We blanch the green peppercorns in in water and dry them in the sun for 2 to 3 days—that’s the black pepper, they darken under the sun.” The red—which is often just left alone and dried—sometimes gets soaked overnight to remove its skin, which is then dried to produce white pepper.

That’s all well and fine, but it can all be a little bit confusing, especially when you add in the long pepper they also grow, which is in the same family as the peppercorn, but looks like mini pine cones and is super hot. I decided to put Nathalie to a test in a game of “I say, you say” in which I named the type of pepper and she said whatever immediately came to mind. The result was a peppery word association poem. Here you go:

Green pepper

“Fresh. The original taste of the pepper. From the tree of life.”

Black pepper

“Spicy. Aromatic. Very long tasting in the mouth. Great with meat.”

Red

“Fruit. The taste of red berries. Flagship product of Kampot. Goes well with chocolate”

White

“Neutral. Perfect for salad and fruit.”

Long Pepper

“Dry fruit. Like figs. The taste of gingerbread. Spicy.”

“We don’t care about being the biggest in the region,” says Guy Porre after I asked him what went into creating some of the most sought after pepper in the world—it goes for 4 times the price than commodity pepper in Cambodia. “We’re after quality.” This search for quality goes way beyond just the peppercorns. La Plantation is helping restore Cambodia to its former glory. Most of the country’s pepper production was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s; only since the early 2000’s did a revival begin. The farm has built and funds a nearby school for 95 kids, as well as building roads and other initiatives. They are invested in the country, and they have found something in Cambodia that the world needs to see and taste again. “Look, the terroir here is amazing,” said Guy with a dreamy look. “It’s the same conditions as Bordeaux, the wind brings in the minerals from the ocean. I go out into the fields in the morning and the leaves are covered with a salty dew.” It’s love and pepper, hand in hand with the people and the country.

This article first appeared on Tasting Table: Behind the Scenes of a Cambodian Pepper Farm

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