Of all the spices in the world, the most commonly used is pepper, a native plant of India and Southeast Asia, a highly prized valuable commodity widely traded around the world from ancient times, known in the civilisations of Egypt, China, Greece and Rome.

In post Roman Europe, the spice was so valuable that it was often used as a currency, earning it the title ‘black gold’, a nomenclature which in turn has since been successively usurped by coffee, coal and oil.

During the middle-ages, Arab traders largely controlled the flow of pepper from the east, which in turn was monopolised in the European market by the Italian states of Venice and Genoa.

The great era of European maritime adventures began with the Portuguese, who began the race to acquire spices, initially from India, and were soon followed by the Spanish, Dutch, English, and French, who often came into conflict with each other as they sought to exploit the great wealth of the world, including spices.

Although several pepper species grew all over Southeast Asia, this supply largely served the Chinese market, and from the sixteenth century, when the English gained supremacy over India, most of the pepper entering the Europe of that time was of Indian origin.

In the modern world, pepper still dominates the culinary repertoire, and next to salt is the principal spice habitually used for flavouring. Today, Vietnam is the world’s largest producer and exporter of Black peppercorns, easily outstripping India and Indonesia.

However, just across the border in Cambodia, the world’s most prized pepper, often referred to as the ‘Champagne of peppers’ is the organically grown Kampot Pepper, grown in six southern districts of Kampot Province.

Pepper has been grown in Cambodia since at least the era of Angkor and Kampot pepper became the preferred choice of French chefs during the heyday of their colonial control of the three Indochine countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

During the Cambodian descent into murderous darkness at the brutal hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s, pepper production, along with so much else, was utterly destroyed and the pepper lands of the Kampot region turned over to rice production.

In the troubled wake of the regime’s passing, it would take over twenty year before surviving wild plants were sought out and production was restarted in the dawn of the new millennium, under the careful guidance of the few surviving experts.

Like grape vines, pepper plants take at least three years to start yielding fruit, but in the relatively short time since production in Cambodia has restarted, Kampot pepper is firmly back on the world culinary stage and achieved coveted Geographical Indication protection status from the World Trade Organisation in 2010 and the European Union in 2016.

Numerous renewed international plaudits for its unique and subtly complex flavour from some of the most renowned chefs, food writers and critics have once again established Kampot pepper as the world’s finest.

As with Champagne, the unique flavours of Kampot pepper are attributed to the mineral rich soils and distinctive microclimate of the southern Kampot region.

Visitors to Cambodia are able to visit the pepper producing farms and discover the delights of fresh Kampot peppercorns, an experience unobtainable elsewhere, with some farms providing eateries to sample the delectable flavour as used in local dishes.

The Kampot pepper harvest occurs between February and May. The plants are highly sensitive to sunlight and are traditionally protected by hanging palm fronds above the vines.

Kampot pepper is produced in four distinct forms, which are all available individually but are also sometimes marketed in mixed packs.

Green pepper is the least spicy, harvested before maturity, and only used fresh, retaining its colour and citrus like properties only for a few days, and chiefly used to complement the delicate flavours of seafood dishes.

Picked later, when the berries are on the cusp of turning yellow, the more familiar Black pepper is produced by blanching the fruit and leaving it to dry in the sun, resulting in the warmest tones and capable of being stored for many years, accounting for its international market prevalence.

Red pepper is produced by allowing the berries to reach full maturity, but careful attention to picking is a must as the berries will quickly spoil beyond this final stage of growth. As with Black pepper, the corns are blanched and sun dried. The red peppercorns are the sweetest of the types produced and are characterised by less heat.

White Pepper is also picked at full red ripeness, and submerged in hot water until the outer skin falls away before initiating he sun-drying process. Since the skin imparts considerable notes to the flavour of pepper the white variety is distinctly different from the others, and is most prized for use in white sauces, where other varieties would discolour the dish.