Chefs' favourite pepper, grown in Cambodia's red soil, excites gourmets
Kampot Province, Cambodia (dpa) - On a long weekend, Sothy’s Pepper Farm in south-west Cambodia is buzzing with tourists from Europe and Asia.
They’ve all taken a long, bumpy ride down red dirt roads from the popular colonial town of Kampot for the chance to see how the province’s famous pepper is made.
After exploring the plantation and eating a meal of prawns and rice, many visitors take the chance to stock up on pepper which runs 8.50 dollars (7.80 euros) to 11 dollars (10 euros) for 160 grams of unground black, white, or red varieties.
While it may be pricey, each variety of organic pepper has its own unique flavour, according to owner Sorn Sothy, who runs the farm with her German husband Norbert Klein.
"The red one is sweet and spicy, it has a fruity smell and taste. The white one is just strong and the black one is spicy within the skin, and in its smell and flavour," she said.
It’s these flavours that make the pepper the favourite of chefs and gourmets, particularly in France, where it has been popular since French colonists created the first pepper plantations in 19th-century Cambodia.
The pepper’s most famous champion is three-Michelin-starred French chef Olivier Roellinger, who has praised Kampot pepper for its "olfactory richness, flavour and its digestive and detoxifying properties" on his website.
Sothy’s farm only produces a single harvest of 50 kilograms of organic pepper each year. She offsets the slightness of her crop by buying from other local organic farmers and packaging their pepper together for sale.
The numbers are also low for the rest of the province, with a yield of 58 tons for Kampot and next-door Kep province in 2014 - a drop in the bucket compared to Vietnam and Indonesia, which produced 155,000 tons and 42,000 tons respectively the same year, according to the industry group Nedspice.
But the Cambodian producers are competing in a different way - aiming to become widely recognized as one of the best peppers in the world, rather than the most abundant.
In 2010, Kampot/Kep pepper became the first product in Cambodia to received the World Trade Organization’s protected "geographical indication status," meaning the WTO recognizes it must come from a particular region like Champagne and Roquefort cheese from France and Gorgonzola cheese from Italy.
Now they are seeking further accreditation from the European Union, and in August 2015 entered the final stages before they are awarded a "protected geographical indication." If all goes well, the product will be registered in the coming months.
What makes Kampot pepper special are the soil conditions, which exist on less than 5,000 hectares of land near the Gulf of Thailand, says Sothy.
"Not everywhere in Kampot, or in Cambodia, can grow this best pepper. This pepper requires red soil and stoney, not sandy and not muddy [conditions]. It needs to be a bit dry like wine. This area has quartz mineral. This quartz produces a very strong flavour in each plant," she says.
Despite their efforts for recognition, pepper farmers still face an upwards battle. Exporting pepper means that they face the classic Cambodian problem of corruption - especially with the country’s notoriously difficult mail system that often requires "access fees" to send or receive parcels.
Officials may demand a bribe even on small shipments of 20 kilograms, says Sothy.
"If I make all the calculations of expenses, employment costs, corruption, I get nothing, I work for free," she asserted.
Andreas Mueller, who sells Sothy’s pepper in Germany on pfeffer-aus-kampot.com, says another problem farmers and distributors face is "counterfeit pepper:" mass-produced pepper from Vietnam that is labelled as Kampot pepper.
Mueller said a tell-tale sign is that the price of the fake is cheaper than for its artisanal counterpart.
"A greater danger would be if the farmers themselves were to cheat and pass off the fake as the real thing," he said by email.
One way consumers can fight pirate products is to look for certification. They should also be willing from the start to pay a higher price for quality, admonishes Mueller.