Just like a wine tasting, a pepper tasting starts with the whites. We each take a white peppercorn or two and place them in our mouths before crunching down to get the full, and surprisingly mild, flavour. "This one goes well with cream sauces, with Chinese food and with white meat," our guide explains.
There is more to come as we taste our way through the variants of Kampot pepper, a Cambodian spice revered by chefs around the world. There are the green peppercorns, picked before they ripen; black ones, which are simply the green ones that have been dried in the sun; and the white ones, which are the black ones with the skin removed. The red ones are peppercorns that have been left on the vine to ripen. Each of them has its own taste, but they all share a distinctly floral note that sets Kampot apart from other peppers.
Kampot pepper is staging a comeback. Having almost disappeared under the Khmer Rouge regime, a number of small plantations, like the one we are visiting, are working to reestablish the industry. The visit was suggested by the staff at Alila Villas Koh Russey, the new island resort on Cambodia's south coast. "We encourage our guests to get out and explore," says Christophe Parault, the resort's marketing and communications director. "This part of Cambodia isn't really on the tourist map yet, but there is so much to see and do."
Like Kampot pepper, Cambodia's south is undergoing a revival of its own. During the 1960s, this area was known as the Cambodian Riviera, and attracted the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve. These days, with overdevelopment marring some parts of the coastal strip, companies such as Alila Villas and Six Senses are looking instead to the islands sprinkled just offshore, fringed with powder sand beaches and offering easy access. (Alila's private jetty is just a 10-minute drive from Sihanoukville Airport.)
Alila is known for its commitment to sustainability, and its Koh Russey master plan has left 85 per cent of the resort area as natural landscape. The area's public spaces, from the lobby to the main restaurant, flow seamlessly into each other, and feature a striking geometric design inspired by the traditional Cambodian checked krama cloth.
The accommodations are divided between pavilion and villas, all done in Alila's typically minimalist approach. The generously sized villas, which come with their own private pool, are the lodgings of choice. The food is a highlight, whether you dine at the casual Beach Shack or Horizon restaurant. There are of course plenty of Cambodian dishes showcasing local specialties, such as Kampot pepper and Kep crab, as well as sophisticated French-inspired cuisine. Be adventurous and try one of the Cambodian breakfast specialties: nom krouk rice balls are recommended.
If you want to go exploring, there is much to discover, including Bokor National Park, where you can go trekking or visit an old colonial hill station. The area is also home to some striking caves including Phnom Chhnork, which houses a seventh-century temple, and the crater-like Phnom Kbal Romeas, which houses its own forest.
Naturally, snorkelling, fishing and kayaking are all available, along with cooking classes. Alila's superb spa treatments are one of its signature strengths; the resort also offers superb tailored yoga classes. Looking for a touch of romance? Try the beach picnic or the outdoor cinema in the privacy of your villa.
A one-hour flight takes you from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. It is a 10-minute car trip to the jetty and a 10-minute boat trip to the island.
Rates for a pavilion start at $US365 a night twin share, including daily breakfast, return Sihanoukville airport transfers, and scheduled shuttle boat-service to the mainland.
Ute Junker was a guest of Alila Koh Russey.