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Kampot province in southern Cambodia has long been famous for the quality of its pepper. During the French colonial era, thousands of acres of the spice were grown there. But under the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, the province's pepper plantations were uprooted to make way for rice. However, a local company is now leading an effort to revive Kampot pepper by giving it Geographical Indication (GI) protection, similar to champagne or parmesan cheese.
Famed for its strong yet delicate aroma, Kampot pepper can range from intensely spicy to mildly sweet. Its unique flavour is thanks to a combination of factors found only in Kampot, says Jerome Benezech, the Director of Farmlink Ltd - a private Cambodian company that deals the development of regional agro-business.
Jerome Benezech, Director of Farmlink Ltd: “Kampot pepper” has a distinct flavor- it has a very fresh aroma with hints of eucalyptus and it lingers in the palate. Its unique flavor is due to a combination of Kampot’s rich soil, the climate in this area which is between the mountains and the sea, as well as the experience of several generations o f pepper farmers.”
Farmlink is currently working with 125 local farmers with the aim of doubling pepper production in five years. More than 20,000 pepper vines have been planted since 2003 - still a fraction of the one million grown during the French protectorate. Many pepper farmers like Ngnoun Lay come from generations of pepper growers.
Ngnoun Lay, Pepper Farmer: “Since I was born my mother and father grew pepper and now I do the same thing. In fact, we have grown peppers in my family for the last four generations. Whether the price is high or low I still plant pepper because, apart from growing rice, it’s all I’ve ever know.”
After harvesting, the peppercorns are dried in the sun before being carefully sorted by hand. Kampot pepper is the first Cambodian product to apply for Geographical indication (GI) protection similar to Champagne or Parmesan cheese. It would mean that only pepper actually grown in Kampot could use that name. The aim of GI status is to help promote it around the world, as well as protecting its quality. Angela Vestergaard, Farmlink's marketing director, is leading the effort to secure GI status.
Angela Vestergaard, Marketing Director, Farmlink Ltd: “This idea behind the GI project is to protect the environment in this region and to make sure that Kampot pepper keeps its high quality and is not mixed with lesser quality peppers. We want the consumer to be guaranteed the highest quality and to be sure that what they are getting is authentic Kampot pepper.
Kampot pepper comes in four basic varieties - black, white, red and green - each with a unique aroma and intensity. It goes particularly well with fish dishes like this local favourite - fried snapper in Kampot pepper sauce.
Frits Mulder, a restaurant owner and food critic based in the capital Phnom Penh, says Kampot pepper is not like any ordinary pepper.
Frits Mulder, Restaurant Owner: “I think you can compare it to a good wine. If you drink ordinary wine all the time you will notice a big difference when you try a glass of something really good- the taste is better and it lingers in your mouth for longer. It’s the same with Kampot pepper. It’s ust not comparable with ordinary pepper.”
Growers are hopeful that if Kampot pepper can earn GI protection next year, the province can regain its status as one of the world's premier pepper growing regions.
Information for this report was provided by APTN.