How Does Black Pepper Grow?

You know about salt, but what do you know about pepper?

I've been on a bit of a salt craze lately. Somewhere between my visit to a geothermal salt farm in Northern Iceland and shopping in a specialty salt shop, though, it hit me: I didn't know enough about its tablemate, black pepper. The yin to salt's yang. I knew it was time to go straight to black pepper's source—it is, after all, the world's most common spice.

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 a top Cambodian chef to visit a real-deal pepper farm. It seemed preordained.

The next day we drove two hours south to the farm, La Plantation. We were in Kampot, hallowed grounds for black pepper since the 13th century. 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 means the pepper is not only amazing but also irreplaceable. As we bounced along a dirt road past wandering water buffalo lazing in the sun, the farm appeared in front of us. There were endless rows of vertical plantings, reminiscent of the hedge maze in The Shining. The vines were covered with fresh peppercorns in clusters like tiny bunches of grapes, with multiple colors growing on the same vines.

For something as common as water, most people know nothing of pepper's origins. 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,” Nathalie said, cracking a knowing smile. "It just depends on when you pick them and how you process them," referring to the color differences. According to Nathalie, the pollination of the plants happens in the summer, after which the fruit starts to develop. "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 water and dry them in the sun for two to three 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 a mini pine cone and is quite hot. I challenged Nathalie to 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:

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," Guy said after I asked him what went into creating some of the most sought-after pepper in the world—it goes for four times the price of commodity pepper in Cambodia. "We're after quality." This search for quality goes beyond just the peppercorns. La Plantation is helping restore Cambodia to its former glory after most of the country's pepper production was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s; only since the early 2000s did a revival begin. Among other initiatives, the farm is building roads and funded a nearby school for 95 children. 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," Guy said with a dreamy look. "It has 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.