Only two months after the famed peppers of Kampot were granted Geographic Indicator status by the Ministry of Commerce, pepper farmers are seeing growth not only in profits, but also in national and international demand.
The peppers’ GI status means that pepper sellers have to be certified as coming from Kampot or Kep province in order to use the prestigious “Kampot Pepper” label. In April, Kampot pepper and Kompong Speu palm sugar became the first Cambodian products to receive the status, which obligates wholesalers to prove to the World Trade Organization that their product is in fact genuine. Other famous examples include tea from Darjeeling and Parma ham.
In 2005, Kampot pepper retailed for around $1 a kilo, a quantity that now sells for $6 thanks to the dwindling number of low-quality products of obscure origin labeled “Kampot Pepper,” said Jerome Benezech, CEO of Farmlink, a Cambodian distribution and export company that lobbied for the recognition of the peppers.
“The status helped us to take back the Kampot pepper market for actual Kampot pepper and provided us with a way to sell ourselves abroad,” Mr Benezech said, adding that the peppers’ newfound credibility has made way for its return into European kitchens.
The delicate aroma and subtle mint flavor that popularized Kampot pepper during Cambodia’s colonial era were remembered only by a handful of high end French chefs until promotional events were staged in Paris, Austria and Germany in 2008 to remind European consumers about the forgotten spice, Mr Benezech said.
According to Mr Benezech, an influx of fake products on the market during the past decade led to a lack of interest in the spice abroad as consumers lost confidence in its authenticity.
It has only been since around 2005 that farmers have reinvested time and money into the berry picking and sorting process in order to reestablish Kampot as watchword for gourmands, he said.
Kampot Pepper Association director Ngoun Lay confirmed Wednesday that demand would surpass supply in 2010 as fake products retreat from the market. Only two months after the end of the harvest season, Mr Lay said that seven tons have already been exported – the same amount that was exported overseas throughout the whole of 2009.
“The market has gotten broader because of the GI,” said Mr Lay, adding that the majority of the peppers were and are being shipped to North America, Europe, Japan and Australia.
Celebrity chef and President of the Cambodian Hotel Association Luu Meng, said Kampot pepper only managed to recover its culinary stature after being wiped out by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s because hotels began using it as the headlining spice over the last few years.
Mr Meng added that the GI distinction made it easier to find genuine ingredients, though heightened demand for the spice has meant its availability is sometimes an issue.
“If they want to keep selling a high quality product, Kampot’s farmers will need to increase capacity,” said Mr Meng, adding that demand in Phnom Penh is now far outweighing supply.
Lao Reasey, director of the Commerce Ministry’s bureau of geographical indication and trade secrets, said that he would encourage the expansion of Kampot Pepper farming while making sure the ingredients distinguished flavors remain intact.
“Quality is the main thing for GI products,” Mr Reasey said. The Ministry of Commerce is currently using the French firm EcoCert to monitor the organic production of both Kampot Pepper and Kompong Speu sugar.
Kompong Speu Palm Sugar Association director Som Saroeun said his organization was on track to export 30 tons of sugar this year, up from just seven tons in 2009. He said that acquiring of the GI indicator had resulted in a spike in demand from buyers mainly located in Europe and Asia.
Mr Saroeun said that 170 families in Odong and Samraong Tong districts would grow the bulk of the palm sugar this year-the harvest runs from December to April.
“I am receiving many phone calls from customers who want to sell Kompong Speu sugar,” said Mr Saroeun.
But Chhorn Ravouth, Marketing Manager of Confirel, a firm that distributes Kompong Speu sugar domestically and abroad, said that while the GI indicator was no doubt helpful in Cambodia, the organic certification given to the product by EcoCert was actually responsible for its newfound popularity abroad.
“There is demand from France, Taiwan, Japan and Korea for the sugar because it is seen as a healthy product because it is organic,” said Mr Ravouth, adding that without the certification the sugar could not legally be sold in France’s organic food shops.
Mr Ravouth said that Kompong Speu sugar would need to be better marketed abroad before demand for the product really takes off.
Other products the Commerce Ministry has considered for GI status include Battambang rice, Banteay Meanchey silk and Pursat, Cardamom and Siem Reap fish paste.