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Kampot Pepper Plantation

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Adventure in a remote black pepper plantation run by a young Frenchman.

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In the 1930s, French chef only ever used Kampot pepper. But that was the only pepper available in France, coming from its Indochine colony, and every Frenchman used it. After the French left, the country's long ordeal, culminating with the atrocious Khmer Rouge regime that killed a quarter of its population. No surprise that there was little left of the prewar pepper production.  When I arrived as a young traveller on an overnight stop in Kampot 5 years ago, farmers where uprooting their pepper plantations because the tumbling world prices did not make any money for their long hours.

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Benezech, a youthful French IT engineer, was asked by a local to help marketing Kampot pepper better so that farmers could make a living. And the young man said yes. Now this is not an American story, where he would now be driven around in a limousine. This is a very French story, and five years on, Benezech doesn't make a living from all his pepper efforts.

You read all the time that Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Having visited India, I expected to bump into some people who were half starving. Not quite.

Cambodians seem to have a very unique attitude towards worldly possessions. In a week in the country, I have not encountered once the abject poverty which is ubiquitous in India. Everybody seems fed correctly, dressed with clean clothes and have a roof.

Now, what striked me most when visiting remote settlements in the countryside was that there seem to be a strong national preference towards leisure vs more material possessions. Let me explain. When the Americans came in the 1950s to offer fertilisers to boost yield of smallholders' rice paddies, Cambodians farmers were much pleased to see that with the same surface, the fertiliser let them get twice as much rice. So when those Americans came back a couple years later to check on the progress of Cambodian farming, they were faced with a wall of cross cultural imcomprehension. The farmers had decided to cultivate half the surface, getting the same amount of rice as before with half the work.

When I asked Benezech about this, he said that Here farmers work 3 hours a day maximum. I have lived 5 years in Kampot and never seen one kitchen garden. People just prefer to buy vegetables imported from Vietnam at the market. Now this is really surprising. On the road to Sianoukhville, a lovely resort on the Gulf of Siam, I saw hundreds of little Cambodian houses, each set in a half-acre plot. The climate here is like a greenhouse, you could grow pretty much any tropical plant. And yet, no orchards, no kitchen gardens. Houses are all unpretentious. Not at all like what we would do in the West. Place a German, a Portuguese or an American in one of those houses, and the next day he would set out clearing the litter of plastic bags that surrounds these houses. Then he would improve the garden to make it look nice and productive. And finally he would try to make the house look better. Look like something that it is not. But the Cambodians seem to be happy with their lot and prefer to enjoy time with their families under the cool porch rather than toiling away in a permanent race for more material possessions. Visiting as a tourist one can only have superficial impressions, but it seemed to me that these people are much happier than other countries in similar economic circumstances but with more appetite for money and things.

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Back at Benezech's home peppercorns are sorted one by one by local women. The ambience is like some drug lab scene in the jungle although of course the agricultural commodity here sorted is not of the regulated kind!

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It is rather striking to imagine that each single peppercorn has been inspected by a person before it is packaged. I thought this sort of work would be done in bulk or by machines. Quality pepper indeed.


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113 Comments

  • #1
  • Comment by Noica
Is this a new post? I'm so glad to see it! I love your blog and have been following it for so long, so happy to see a new article!
Thanks for showing us this, I never knew about Kampot peppers and its prominence in French cuisine. Very interesting!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Noica!

  • #3
  • Comment by Bela
Am I seeing ghosts or is this the first article in several years? Good to have you back.
  • FX's answer→ I changed to a new kitchen so now more posts will come from my new pots!

  • #5
  • Comment by Sam Touchet
Welcome back. I have missed your posts.
  • FX's answer→ Nice you remembered me Sam!

  • #7
  • Comment by Simon Rose
Welcome back! Glad to see you posting again.
  • FX's answer→ Thank you for your loyalty!

I am so happy to see a post from you! The photographs are beautiful, and give the flavor of the landscape as well as making me imagine sorting through peppercorns, one by one.
Thank you for sharing another thought-provoking glimpse into the source and history of a food item. Always so interesting!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks a lot!

  • #11
  • Comment by Samaritan
Welcome back!

Really fascinating cultural observations. I definitely would be planting almost immediately. I would love to hear more about the cultivation of these plants, and what makes them distinctive from other regional peppers.

Please, keep posting!

Daniel
  • FX's answer→ Well pepper requires a long, hot growing season with more humidity than can be provided outside of the tropics and serious greenhouses. It is just a high quality black pepper that I had the privilege to see from pod to pot!

  • #13
  • Comment by Florent
Hey!

Nice to see you there again! Thanks for sharing this story.
I hope to hear more news from you, again!

Best wishes!
  • FX's answer→ Glad you liked it Florent!

  • #15
  • Comment by Chris
Missed you FX, good to see you back.
  • Comment by fx, 1
Thanks Chris I am glad too!
  • #17
  • Comment by Ben
So glad to see you back, FX.  I've missed your posts.  

If you are still in contact, please let Mr. Benezech know that a simple way to boost productivity of the pepper plant as well as quality of the peppercorns is to replace those wooden posts with granite ones.  Just rough hewn granite posts.
  • Comment by fx, 1
Thanks Ben, this is intriguing, but it did not seem they had much hard stone in the vicinity. Does the stone increase productivity because of retained heat, like a fruit wall?
  • #19
  • Comment by Clement
Great article, well done!
  • Comment by fx, 1
Thank you Clement.
  • #21
  • Comment by Sarah
Thank you for updating your food blog again.  You have managed to document French style cooking techniques through story driven posts, helping me learn the joy of searching out fine ingredients and cooking them well.  This site is a love letter to pasta and cured meats.  Please take no offense at me appropriating your cooking and adulterating it with the fresh produce of California.
~Cheers and Best Wishes
  • FX's answer→ Ah well I am flattered, California seems full of worthy ingredients and many connaisseurs of Mediterranean food!

  • #23
  • Comment by DQ
welcome back! I just introduced a friend to your site, glad to have you back.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks for your fidelity!

  • #25
  • Comment by Clement
Bravo François, glad to see you back !
  • FX's answer→ Thanks a lot for your loyalty!

  • #27
  • Comment by Monica Flores
I am SOOOOOOO excited that you are back blogging. I had bookmarked your site many years ago - the 4-hour lunch in Switzerland is on my #goals list. Thank you for this article!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks for your loyalty, Monica!
    The chef from the 4 hour lunch is unfortunately missing but the restaurant is still there with the same standards.

  • #29
  • Comment by timtom
A new post! So happy to have you back! I knew I had to keep your feed in my RSS reader :) And with a fantastic story to boot. Great subject, beautiful pics. Love it.
  • FX's answer→ Tom, thank you for your loyalty! More is on the way...

  • #31
  • Comment by Ben
François, the granite is good for the pepper because the plant will absorb trace minerals as it grows.  The plant is shading the post so it's not retained heat.
  • FX's answer→ Good tip thanks!

Looking great, FX! I saw Benezech and his farm featured on one of the old Rick Stein show. I am getting the peppers and doing a crab stir fry soon (well, soon as I find the peppers)
  • FX's answer→ Yes Rick Stein actually used stuff from FXcuisine for his adventure in Lucknow! I love soft shell crab...

I love you, I love you and then I love you some more. You are the best! My idol - FX. Take a bow everyone, HE IS BACK!
  • FX's answer→ Thank you!

YOU CAME BACK! This is so exciting.

I've seen Benezech on a Rick Stein TV program - his pepper looks just delicious.

I wonder if the not changing their houses is a hangover from Khmer Rouge days? If you were tortured for wearing glasses or being educated, you might have a deep-seated fear of putting yourself "above" your neighbours.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Alicia! No I don't think the Communists had much influence that way, it seemed almost ingrained in most peoples' attitude to life - enjoy it and not worry about increasing materia wealth too much. I am not much qualified to comment on this, it was a casual observation from Francois the traveller.

  • #39
  • Comment by Tjan
Good to see you back! It's been a long few years without new posts here I'm so glad the wait is over. Hoping to see new recipes and cooking shots from your new kitchen soon!
  • FX's answer→ Ah yes sometimes I may lift the curtain so that you can meet the "wizard"!

  • #41
  • Comment by Ari
You're alive! And blogging! Beyond all hope you return to us, FX!
  • FX's answer→ Have been alive for a good while now ... and blogging again of recent!

  • #43
  • Comment by James
Welcome back, Prodigal Son!!  I am so glad to see that your website is alive again. Very interesting culture in Cambodia!
  • FX's answer→ The Prodigal Son will now go find the fatted calf!

  • #45
  • Comment by Dean Shelley
So glad you are back dude 😊
  • FX's answer→ Thank you

  • #47
  • Comment by sharon
Great to see you back with your articles. You've been "away" too long!
  • FX's answer→ Indeed. Thanks for remembering me!

  • #49
  • Comment by Lionel
Glad to see you back, after checking your website almost daily for quite a long time...

I have been fortunate enough to eat this kind of pepper quite regularly, my grandparents owned quite a bit of land in Réunion Island (another former French colony, though it is still part of France today) and my grandfather, a former merchant marine captain, cultivated many kinds of plants that he bought back from all over the world.

I use many of the recipes found on your website regularly and, following your recommendation, made a point to have lunch at the Château de Villa when I stayed in Switzerland for a while in 2013 (I was in Geneva and still miss Swiss-market Ovomaltine, the one sold here has a different recipe).

If not for you I guess that I wouldn't own the sorelle Simili's awesome books either.

Best regards from Mauritius Island.

Lionel
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Lionel, this is quite captivating! I love Mauritius and La Réunion, fantastic foods!

  • #51
  • Comment by Tony Writer
I can't tell you how much pleasure it gave me to see your email in my inbox this morning! Welcome back, FX! Looking forward to more posts.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Tony, sending those emails I wondered whether anybody would actually read them...!

  • #53
  • Comment by Rich
I couldn't believe my eyes when I received your email announcing you were back.
Fantastic!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks a lot Rich!

  • #55
  • Comment by Danielle
What a lovely surprise this morning to see that FXCuisine is back! I have long mourned its passing, checking back every few months. I'm so pleased that you are blogging again. I hope you are very well Monsieur Francois; we missed you!
  • FX's answer→ Ah but you mourned too soon, and he is back and very well (has always been) thanks a lot!

Incredibly excited to see you back, to see more pictures, to learn more from your experiences. It's incredible to see the diligence in sorting those peppercorns.  Thank you for the great entry!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks, indeed surprising diligence sorting peppercorns one by one by hand!

  • #59
  • Comment by Natalie
So thrilled to see you back! I've missed your exquisite food blogging. We rased a new generation of puppies into adulthood, our kids are starting to date their first school loves and good life comes back with your mouthwatering recipes and amazing documentaries on various coulinary specialties. Hope the life was treating you well and we all ( your fans and friends on the quest for better food) are impatient awaiting more like this Cambodia pepper article and the new recipes. Good job and don't leave us again!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Natalie, lovely to heat about the kids! You'll have plenty of chances to cook some more in the next chapter of your life. Yes no problems in my life, I just was busy doing other things and could not keep up with 2 articles a week!

  • #61
  • Comment by Jan
Welcome back! :-)
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Jan!

  • #63
  • Comment by Norah
It is so good to see your beautiful photos again.  I've missed you so much.  My productivity at work is going to decline a bit, now that I have your website to check in with everyday.
  • FX's answer→ Ah well I think one new article a week at most, so you'll have 4 days left a week to do some work!

Welcome back! So happy to see your writing and beautiful images again. You were one of the very first food blogs I connected with and fell in love with. Your passion inspired me to create my own blog and career (hugs) Jaden
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Jaden I am very pleased to see how you developped and found a new career out of your love of food! Glad you consider I played a small part in it!

  • #67
  • Comment by HGB
Welcome baaaaaack ! Hip, hip, hip.... J'ai jusqu'alors toujours navigué incognito sur ton fabuleux site, mais là impossible de ne pas te souhaiter la bienvenue. Ravie de retrouver tes posts passionnants et ces merveilleuses photos.
(That's funny, I currently have kampot pepper in my pepper mill, really intense and flavourfull)
  • FX's answer→ Merci bien, je vois que tu as aussi des intérêts culinaires éclectiques géographiquement!

  • #69
  • Comment by Pure Hapa
Very nice pictorial at long last. Your email was in my spam folder. You should start on Youtube!
I wonder if the lack of ambition has to do with the fact that many of the millions of Cambodians killed in the genocide were the educated and business classes. Just as Mao destroyed those classes in China a generation previous. The ensuing Khmer Rouge culture made sure to put down any hint of Capitalist behavior. Coupled with rampant corruption and instability, the economic atmosphere does not reward productive people. So people try not to stick out in any manner. And from Wikipedia: "One of the largest challenges facing Cambodia is still the fact that the older population often lacks education, particularly in the countryside, which suffers from a lack of basic infrastructure." Cambodian-Americans help their relatives with clothing and money gifts as much as they can.

I think that they will turn around slowly, as Vietnam has.
  • FX's answer→ Well that is not impossible actually, but I did not get the feeling that those people whiling away on their hammocs were unhappy in the least...!

Each post is an education. Thank you!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks a lot Cynthia!

What a delight to see you've returned. Almost 10 years ago you inspired me with your work and turned me on to some of my favorite days of cooking. And now I'm inspired once more. Thank you!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks this is very nice to hear, sharing my joy in the kitchen was one the main reasons to blog!

  • #75
  • Comment by Felicity
It's so great to have you back!!!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Felicity!

  • #77
  • Comment by Roberto
François Xavier, welcome back! I read all your posts and made several of your recipes. When I lived in a farm in the Vale do Ribeira, Brazil,  I'd grown these Piper nigrum  peppers around concrete posts, so I could use them as poivre vert right from the orchard near my farmhouse. This area of southeastern Brazil matches  perfectly your desription of the Cambodian countryside. Best regards  from Gainesville, Florida.
  • FX's answer→ Roberto thanks a lot! Growing vegetables and spices in a tropical garden is a dream for me! Green pepper straight off the tree, no less ...! Well I am growing chili peppers from seed right now, easier in my climate.

  • #79
  • Comment by Rita
Great to welcome you and your brilliant posts back in my life. Look forward to more!
  • FX's answer→ I shall not disappoint you!

  • #81
  • Comment by Angelo
YAY! NEW POSTS! WELCOME BACK FRANCOIS!
  • FX's answer→ Indeed! Thanks

  • #83
  • Comment by lorenzo  a.
glad you are back , I was missing your excellent articles  !!
Welcome back
  • FX's answer→ Thanks, you shall miss me no more!

  • #85
  • Comment by dan
So nice to see you back! I went back a while ago and re-looked at all your old posts.. looking forward to more!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks a lot Dan!

  • #87
  • Comment by Kate
Isn't it a great thing to have François Xavier back!!! How many years we waited - and here you are! Thank your for brilliant articles and looking forward to having new ones!
and are you going to re-kindle your other blogs? That would be great!!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Kate! Which other blogs did you mean?

  • #89
  • Comment by Claudio Lima
Hello guy, welcome back, greetings from big fan from Brasil, life long and prosper!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Claudio nice to visit me!

  • #91
  • Comment by B C
Thanks to two friends bickering over what is a proper bolognese sauce and my remembrance of this site, I have pleasantly discovered there are new posts again.
  • FX's answer→ Glad you remembered me!

  • #93
  • Comment by Rick
WooHoo! Francois is back!
  • FX's answer→ Hey Rick, thanks for remembering me! Are you still cooking on you boats?

  • #95
  • Comment by Rick
Hi Francois, Yes, still working and doing some cooking on the boats. Glad to see more blog posts from you!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Rick, I am glad to hear from you! Will try not to disappoint my readers with regular new articles. Plenty of things to show and tell.

  • #97
  • Comment by Saxit
Welcome back! I've missed your updates!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks, glad to be back too!

  • #99
  • Comment by Ashleigh Haze
FX, you are back! I could weep with joy. And your articles are as excellent as ever. You were always an inspiration-I went to Valais and ate raclette during your absence!
  • FX's answer→ Ah this goes straight to my heart I was in Valais this afternoon! Glad to hear my little articles inspired you!

  • #101
  • Comment by Jason
I knew you would return!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Jason!

So glad you are updating your blog again, François!  I discovered FXCuisine in 2010 and was so captivated that I read every post.  What wonderful writing, photography and recipes!  I love Europe and it was almost like I was there alongside you, so rich and vibrant were your desriptions.  In fact, I also love cooking and writing, and your blog so inspired me that I started my own food blog, which I've had going now for almost six years.  

Thanks again, and I'm looking forward to more culinary adventures with you via your blog.  Cheers!
  • FX's answer→ Hello Chris, thanks for the kind words and endorsement! I just spent a good while reading up your blog! I sort of recognize the visual narration style ... thanks! Lots of really mouth watering recipes of the direct, generous, manly sort I like to cook myself. And congrats on the cool bean pot from Le Creuset!

Hi François.  Thanks to you as well.  I'm honored to have you view my blog, and yes, as you can tell, my format was very much inspired by yours.  When cookbooks or food blogs only list recipes without any narration or back story, I don't find it nearly as interesting as when there is some additional detail to spice things up. I like to know the history and culture behind a dish.  And lots of photos is the way to go.  I've really tried to improve my food photography over the last year and a half, picking up some strobes and other gear.  I'm not nearly as good as you, but your 'behind the scenes' page showing your kitchen setup, as well as the site Strobist.com, really helped with my learning curve.  All the best,

Chris
  • FX's answer→ Indeed photos are really the way to go, it makes easy and enticing for readers to follow what steps are needed for the result, and why not try and make each one beautiful!

  • #107
  • Comment by Kurt Tee
I am so happy you're back, Mr. FX! You are one of my food heroes!
  • FX's answer→ Well thanks Kurt, hope you will like the new articles!

  • #109
  • Comment by Lyubov
I echo the joy of your other loyal readers, and am delighted to see you posting regularly again! Warmest wishes from Canada.
  • FX's answer→ Glad you remembered me!

  • #111
  • Comment by Eliot
FX! You're back! I'm so happy - thrilled even. I discovered your blog and read every article a few years ago. And since then - silence. It has however been on my list of 'check this every six months or so' and see if it's changed. I've not even read the above article yet - I'm just so thrilled you're back. Looking forward to more updates. And best i'd get reading! Bravo!!! ☺️
  • FX's answer→ Thanks a lot for remembering me Eliot! Hope you'll see here some new stuff you like!

  • #113
  • Comment by Kevin
YES! I've waited years for your return! =D

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