Since the 13th century, Kampot, a southern Cambodian province in the foothills of the Elephant Mountains, has been known for the cultivation of the finest peppercorns in the world.
Piquant but floral with hints of eucalyptus and an extra-long finish, Kampot pepper is among a select group of food products whose names are protected by the European Union, receiving the coveted Protected Geographical Indication designation alongside ingredients such as Stilton cheese and Darjeeling tea.
The "king of spice" was considered too decadent for the Khmer Rouge communists of the 1970s, who uprooted Kampot's peppercorn vines and enslaved local farmers.
But a revival kindled by Japanese aid workers in the 1990s has finally borne fruit; around 500 farmers are now growing peppercorns in Kampot.
With a striking collection of French colonial architecture and tree-lined boulevards, Kampot town is experiencing a revival of its own.
There's a buzzing arts scene, a growing tourism industry and a rapidly expanding selection of eateries opened by expatriate chefs and restaurateurs who've settled in this sleepy riverside town.
From French to Portuguese, to modern Australian, the offerings are diverse though all inevitably incorporate Kampot pepper into their menus.
Here's the pick of the Kampot restaurant crop.
When second-hand dealer Angus Whelan of Brisbane moved to Kampot in 2011, he found himself spending too much time – and money – in local cafes. So he built a coffee roaster from a hot air gun and a bread machine, put his natural interior decorating flair to use and began creating blends using coffee beans from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam – "basically from anywhere I could get coffee beans put on a bus," he says. Today, Whelan sells five different blends plus five single origins at his family-run place Cafe Espresso. Set in a large salt shed with murals painted by "artist mates who came over from Australia" and furniture Whelan made himself, it has the look and feel of a hip inner-city Australian cafe sans the Australian prices. At 20,000 riel (about AUD$7), the sweet potato roesti with poached eggs, house-made chorizo, Kampot peppered bacon and spinach is a steal. Another $3 buys a salted-caramel milkshake turbo-flavoured with Kampot palm sugar and local salt.
Open Tue-Sun 8am-4pm, kampotcoffee.wixsite.com/espresso
For 15 years, Armando Bonadonna managed high-end restaurants in Shanghai, Bangkok and other mega-cities in Asia. "I was not happy," the Venice-born chef recalls. "So I settled down in Kampot, where the lifestyle is easy." In early 2018, he opened his first eatery – one of three Italian restaurants in Kampot, yet the favourite among expats for Bonadonna's daily specials. "In Asia, Italian restaurants are all about pizza. Pizza, Pizza, Pizza. But when I explain the specials to customers, they get curious," he says. "For example, today in the market I bought chicken liver. Many people will turn their nose at this but you can cook very good pasta with chicken liver. I'm going to make a chicken liver fettuccine with a peppery tomato sauce."
Open Fri-Wed 5pm-10pm, facebook.com/armandofoodinprogress
With black and white chequerboard flooring, a dimly lit cocktail bar and only a handful of tables, this low-key Mediterranean-inspired dinner is Kampot's culinary dark horse. Twenty Three's slow-cooked crusty pork belly tastes as good as it sounds, while the twice-baked cheddar souffle seasoned with Kampot pepper and Kampot salt is pure cheesy goodness. Expats come here to eat this dish on its own, though it also makes the perfect accompaniment to Twenty Three's chicken leg braised in fresh green Kampot pepper sauce. "Our focus is simple organic ingredients and doing it really well," says Owen Kaagman, a French-trained chef from South Africa. "I prefer to let the ingredients do the talking."
Open Wed-Mon 11am to 10pm, facebook/23kampot
In the Portuguese language, tertulia are regular but informal gatherings of friends at a set place to discuss politics, literature and art. In Kampot, Tertulia is an airy white-washed tapas bar with soaring ceilings and open archways created by three Portuguese friends who ended up in Cambodia. Cooked for eight hours in red wine and mushroom sauce, the beef cheeks are chef Francisco Salema's favourite. Mine was the tuna tartare with ginger, Kampot pepper and wasabi whipped cream, while the chocolate mousse with crushed peanut nougat also deserves a mention.
Open Thu-Tue noon-2pm & 6pm-10pm; tertulia-kampot.com
Cambodia's most famous dish is fish amok – a slightly sweet coconut curry flavoured with lemongrass and kaffir lime. It's is a simple dish Cambodians cook at home every day. But adapting it for the fine dining market has proven exceptionally difficult. "Reinventing Cambodian food is an amazing challenge because when we arrived here, we had little knowledge about local produce," says Steven Paoli, the Paris-born owner of Greenhouse, a gorgeous riverfront restaurant about 15 minutes' drive from the city's French quarter. "It took us a long time to assimilate and discover all the interesting local produce until we found the perfect combination." Made from a cobia fish fillet with Kampot pepper and served with mung bean risotto and tamarin caviar on the side, it's but one of the inventive new dishes featuring on Greenhouse's Kampot pepper discovery. Don't leave without trying the Kampot red pepper ice-cream or a chocolate pepper cookie.
Open 11.30am-3pm & & 6pm-9.30pm; greenhousekampot.com
L'Epi D'or Bakery & Cafe is locally famous for croissants – plain, with chocolate or cheese – as well as crunchy baguettes that sell out before noon. The Kampot Pepper Shop sells a range of products sourced from Bo Tree peppercorn plantation, such as green Kampot peppers and preserved Kampot fleur de sel, a salt crystal that forms on the surface of seawater as it evaporates. Burger Shack, a no-frills burger joint run by two Australian backpackers, has perfected the double-bacon cheese. For $5 you can get a burger and an Angkor beer, the best deal in "The Pot".
Where to stay
Instead of renovating another of Kampot's old French colonial manors, Cambodian architect Nath Kananda started from scratch with the Boutique Kampot Hotel, the best digs in town. With 18 large rooms spread across five floors, BKH offers modern conveniences with retro touches such as wrought iron balustrades, rotary telephones and a collection of vintage motorcycles and rickshaws in the lobby. "I credit my wife for the decor," Nath says. "She loves French architecture from the 19th century and worked hard to bring back the style in a modern context." At $100 a night including breakfast, the deluxe suite on the fourth floor is a prism of natural light with large balconies and uninterrupted 270-degree views of the French Quarter and Elephant Mountains.
Set on a dreamy palm-fringed bend on the river 10 minutes' drive from town, Champa Lodge immerses guests in the gentle rhythms of Cambodian village life. Spend your time kayaking, fishing, exploring temples, nearby villages or Bokor National Park on a moped or mountain bike – or simply watching life and time pass on the river. "I don't like it when guests stay only one night because they don't get a chance to enjoy the place. We can keep you busy for a week," says Belgian-born hotelier Stephane Davos, who stocks 15 kinds of Belgian beer and cooks a mean Kampot pepper crab. Accommodation at Champa Lodge comprises five traditional Cambodian wood-stilt homes that were transported on barges, reassembled on the riverbank and outfitted with top-shelf bedding, modern bathrooms, security boxes, Wi-Fi routers and nothing else. Rustic luxury at its best. It's $50-$75 a night with breakfast.