Starling Farms outside of Kampot, Cambodia, grows and harvests by hand the black, red, and white pepper that has become a culinary delicacy among chefs around the world.
“Bong – how much farther?” Our oldest son, Roswell, was asking our tuktuk driver how much longer we’d be bouncing along this potholed dirt road somewhere in Cambodia. In Khmer (pronounced “k’MAI,”), you address any male older than you as “bong”: it means “older brother.”
We were heading toward a pepper plantation that the driver had assured us he knew how to find. There were five of us jammed into the tuktuk – a four-passenger cart pulled by a motorcycle. (It’s like riding in an escaped carnival ride.) We’d left the riverside city of Kampot in southern Cambodia far behind; past the city center with its giant statue of a durian fruit, past endless low shops lining either side of the asphalt road, and onto a dirt track. We had been bouncing along like this for maybe 20 minutes.
“Ten minutes,” the driver said.
We passed small neat farms, with one-story houses up on stilts, Brahma cows strolling by or lying down, and strutting long-legged chickens. Emerald-green swaths of – something. Is that what rice looks like? Little children wearing shorts would wave vigorously as we chugged past and shout “Hello!” They seemed delighted to make a connection. Their lively greetings sounded like bird calls.
But now the landscape was getting scruffier, more hilly. There was more exposed red dirt, and no farms. Where was he taking us?
Ten minutes later we passed a sign for the Starling Farms pepper plantation, and soon bumped to a halt. We’d arrived, our driver indicated, and pointed down the slope. I saw rows of what looked like evenly spaced green towers. As we got closer, we saw that the towers were openwork brick columns, like chimneys, about 10 feet tall. They were wrapped in lush green vines – pepper plants, which in the wild wrap around the trunks of trees. We spotted the green berries, peppercorns, clumped in strings about three inches long. Most of the berries were small and green, but a few – no more than three per clump – were red.
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