When someone announces that they a big fan of Pepper, you can be pretty much sure they will be referring to the 1967 Beatles album and not the spice native to the Western Ghats of India.
Whilst being a huge fan of the seminal music masterpiece, the spice is something to which I admit I’ve given little consideration.
Together with salt, I have generally accepted pepper as being no more than a readily available flavour enhancer.
A mere commoner of condiments, its exotic roots forgotten, I would expect pepper to be at hand at any British dining table; almost always with salt, often with Sarson’s malt vinegar and Heinz ketchup.
At some point in the 1980‘s, the ground white pepper that until then had always been a mainstay of my parents seasoning, started to be replaced on special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, times when my dad turned his hand to posh food such as grilled steak) by a tall wooden grinder containing black peppercorns.
As the grinder creaked and crushed the corns within, I recall the aroma it released as being far more potent than the dusty pre-ground sneezing powder of an earlier generation’s kitchen table.
Over the years, in the same way that the grey squirrel has taken Darwinian theory to the extreme in ousting its red cousin from her native UK woodlands, so too has the fiery black peppercorn replaced ground pepper from our condiment collections.
The small tub of ground white pepper is an endangered species in Britain.
Here in Kampot, Cambodia, it thrives.
During the years of French colonial rule, the sleepy town of Kampot garnered a reputation for producing possibly the most flavoursome and therefore sought after pepper in the world.
With an ideal climate and soil, the market price of pepper from Kampot terroirs is approximately four times that of inferior pepper from neighbouring regions.
It is the Champagne of the pepper world, the Parma of Hambodia.
After seeing its farming heritage devastated during the Khmer Rouge rule when pepper plantations (an evil cash-crop) were replaced with other subsistence crops, Kampot pepper disappeared from the restaurant kitchens of Paris.
Now, with a newly awarded Protected Geographical Indication status to go with a resurgent pepper farm collective, the Kampot pepper is once again gracing the dishes of haute cuisine establishments.
Determined to find out why, the 0.5 and I opted to visit a plantation and gain some first hand knowledge.
Right, crib note time again.
Kampot Pepper comes in several forms, so firstly lets consider my recently established favourite, green pepper.
Harvested when still young on the vine, the Kampot green pepper drupes are served locally with all manner of seafood dishes.
Once picked, the drupes only remain fresh for a few days so to preserve their flavour. This accounts for their relative unfamiliarity in the UK.
To create greater staying power for the possibility of export, immature green pepper drupes are dried in the sun for several days, during which time the pepper around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layer known as a black peppercorn.
The Kampot black pepper is at once powerful, spicy and tasty, but the green?
Oh, the green!
So this is what all the fuss is about. I get it now.
Almost chilli like in its assault on the mouth, to chew your first green pepper freshly picked from the vine is to open a whole new world of taste sensation as it explodes on the palate with a delightfully ripe pepperiness.
But it doesn’t stop there.
To create red pepper, the drupe may be harvested when fully mature during which time it should have developed a sugary sweetness and a powerful fruity aroma.
White Pepper is then obtained by soaking red peppers in water for a few days to remove the fleshy outer layer before drying.
Kampot red and white peppers are extremely rare due to the difficulty in harvesting fully mature pepper.
Only a few hundred kilos are produced each year, and this extra processing means that much sought after Kampot white pepper is sold at a premium.
Upon finishing our tour of the pepper plantation and having already been guided through a minefield by some teenage boys earlier in the day, we decided to taste the local piece de resistance, peppered crab, at a restaurant in nearby Kep.
Kep is a colonial era resort town whose villas are slowly being restored to their former glories. It is positively mediterranean in its look and feel, and boasts a famous crab market where it is said the seafood is as fresh as it gets.
I beg to differ.
At the seafront restaurant to which out tuk-tuk driver took us (commissioned, naturally), we actually saw the crabs we were to eat being picked from the pots which bobbed just off the shoreline.
The resulting dish was superb even if the crab proved a wee bit too cumbersome for the 0.5’s liking, though I (literally) cracked on, taking almost an hour to polish off the entire plate of crustaceans that sat before us.
The fresh green pepper provided a suprisingly subtle sauce whist the fruits were temptingly fiery to chew upon.
The good old, humble pepper, eh?
And not a dodgy, scouse moustache nor sitar to be seen.