Since Vietnam, we decided to take things a little more easy. For us that meant not moving around too much for a while and having forgotten about Workaway while in Japan, we delved back into the database when we were in Vietnam. We weren’t looking to work in Vietnam, but planning ahead a little to Cambodia. The first opportunity that caught Zoë’s eye was a pepper farm. We contacted them, and after a while managed to arrange to volunteer on Sothy’s pepper farm near Kep.
Once arranged, all we had to do was get there from Phnom Penh. The farm’s owner was a great help and gave us the number of a minibus driver who would take us straight to the farm in less time and for less money than the big bus. Due to our lack of Khmer, we got our hostel to arrange everything with the driver and get us a tuk-tuk to the bus station. It worked better than we could have expected and our minibus ride was ok mainly because we had lots of space and windows to open. Four hours later, we pulled up to Sothy’s pepper farm and met Sothy and the other volunteers. Arriving at the end of the working day meant a slow start but we got to enjoy dinner (the food was great) and get to know everyone, before retiring to our private bungalow.
The farm is owned by Sothy and her husband Norbert and they have been running it for 5 years. It’s an organic farm producing the famous Kampot pepper using as much renewable energy as possible (at present). Our job for the week was to give informative free tours to the tourists who visited each day and help with the restuarant and other odd jobs.
Rather than tell you about each group of tourists we gave tours to, we thought it would be best to give you a brief virtual tour of the farm: The history of pepper in Cambodia is a little mysterious. The pepper plants were brought from India, but it was the Chinese who first documented Pepper farming in Kampot Province in 1293. In the 19th century the French arrived, tasted the pepper and couldn’t believe it was really just pepper. They sent samples to France for analysis and with the confirmation that it really was pepper and it was very good they increased production.
Today we understand that the taste of Kampot pepper is unique due to the red quartz found in the soil. It now has the protection of a geographical indication and is world famous. Saying that, not all Kampot pepper is equal, some is imposter pepper from Vietnam and some is grown with the use of fertilisers and pesticides. The best of Kampot pepper is grown by members of the Kampot pepper association, who all farm pepper organically.
Sadly, we can’t do a virtual pepper tasting so you will just have to believe what we write or source some kampot pepper to try at home. There are 4 types of pepper each with their own flavour, smell and use, but they all come from the same plant: Green: unripe peppercorns which at first don’t seem peppery and then you bite into one and get a pepper explosion. They can be preserved in salt or cooked fresh. In Cambodia green pepper seafood is a must try dish. Black: green peppercorns that have been sundried. They have a powerful peppery taste and are great ground onto most dishes. Red: ripe peppercorns which have been sundried. They have a fruity/tomato smell and are not too peppery. They are best cooked whole for maximum flavour. White: red peppercorns which have been boiled and peeled. They are the mildest corns and are best used in sauces or for fish. Now you know a little more about pepper we can go on a photo tour…
The pepper plants are a vine so to grow them well they need to be in conditions similar to a forest. Two plants grow up each stake and take 4 years to become fruitful enough for a harvest. The plants will live for 20 years before being replaced with a cutting. The plants need protection from too much sunlight, too much water and a furry yellow and black caterpillar. The shade is provided by bamboo while channels drain excess water. The caterpillar is dealt with organically by using the Neem trees bitter leaves to create a spray for the pepper plants. The rains wash away the bitter taste before the peppercorns begin to grow.
Peppercorns start off as small white flowers which are then replaced with immature peppercorns. These gradually grow and turn red.
Once 25% of the peppercorns are red and the remainder still green, they are harvested by hand. This usually happens once a year between March and May. Once harvested the peppercorns are removed from their stalks and sorted. The pepper stalks are dried and used to make pepper tea, which is good for detoxes.
Green peppercorns change from green to black in just two days in the drying house. Black, red and white pepper are all dried for one week before sorting.
Sorting is a laborious process. The peppercorns are sifted to remove small and broken ones. Then selection of A and B grade pepper begins. Any peppercorns that are not black/red or white enough are set aside. These are good enough for the local market and restuarants but not for export. The remaining pepper is A grade and reaches prices upwards of $50/kg.
Once sorted the pepper is packaged by hand and using a vacuum machine. The black, red and white pepper keeps for up to 3 years while the green peppers shelf life is around 6 months (it wouldn’t last that long in our house).
We also took tourists around the fruit trees on the farm which included jackfruit, mango, papaya, rambutan and durian.
Aside from tours in both English and German and making friends with tourists we helped with a few other things. Zoë enjoyed helping with the pepper production while Matthias helped tackle the waste management problems.
We were a little surprised that the farm was struggling to sort, recycle and process waste. Various attempts at composting kitchen waste had failed and huge piles of mixed recyclables and rubbish had piled up. Matthias and some of the other volunteers cleared out the rubbish heap and made plastic bottle and metal can bins. It was a huge task and only really the start of accomplishing something. It really highlighted to us, how little education there is in South East Asia about waste. Everyone uses plastic and just throws it away as there are no other alternatives. Plastic straws, bags and bottles have become a huge problem, but hopefully Sothy’s farm will continue to move away from them in the future. Maybe we will return one day to find out. Despite this and the army of ants that moved into our Bungalow one evening, we still enjoyed our time on a pepper farm and feel we know a lot more about pepper and Cambodia.