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Cambodia's prized spice meets different demands

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Staff at Kurata Pepper in Phnom Penh sort through peppercorns for quality. Photograph: Rosa Ellen/Phnom Penh Post

Kampot pepper producer Anna Him had been growing the prized spice for about eight years before she decided to take the plunge and export it herself two years ago.

In 2010 Kampot’s pepper was given protected geographical indication status (GI), a similar certification that gives Greece the right to market its cheese as ‘feta’ and the Champagne region in France the rights to call their sparkling wine ‘champagne’.

Demand for Cambodia’s unique commodity surged and for the first time Kampot’s pepper producers were preparing export orders for peppercorns before they had been harvested.

Him’s Starling Farm tapped into the market and is now selling to countries including Russia, Denmark, Thailand and Australia, as well as local high-end restaurants and hotels. She said prices are only improving.

“Black Kampot we sell for US$11 a kilo and red Kampot $18 a kilo from the farm gate. It’s messy – it’s from the farm and then at the Starling Farm company we have to sort by hand, for quality.”

Starling Farm produces four tonnes of peppercorns itself annually and sources another two from Kampot properties.

The produce is organically grown, with processes monitored by the Kampot Pepper Farmers Association.

“The Kampot association comes and checks (organic status) they come and tell us to use it. We cannot use chemicals because it (Kampot pepper flavour) is very popular,” Him said.

Nguon Lay, president of the Kampot Pepper Association, which comprises of 139 families planting in four districts of Kampot, said the group produced about 18.7 tonnes last year.

The association normally sells to eight local companies for retail in the domestic market as well as exporting to Europe, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

“Of course, we have never made our own export because we only sell to domestic companies,” Nguon. “Our quality is pretty good compared to others at the global market ... because we are a GI product.”

But for Cambodia’s non-GI pepper, the global market is not as consistently friendly.

Hironobu Kurata, who sources and exports organic pepper from about 35 farms in Koh Kong for his Kurata Pepper company, has been gradually finding new markets since he began exporting in 2006.

“At first I bought a sample to bring back to Japan but I couldn’t find a market in Japan at this moment. Now I find a market myself – Japan, Denmark and Germany,” he said.

Last year 15 tonnes of Cambodian black pepper were sent to Germany alone, but Kurata Pepper has missed out on the order this year.

Kurata said Japan consumed 8,000 tonnes of its pepper from outside the country, a huge demand he said even Cambodia would have difficulty filling.

Unlike Kampot pepper, Cambodian black pepper has to compete with a world of producers, he said.

“I’m afraid of the prices. Now it’s $6-7 per kilogramme, last year it was a crazy market price ($8) ... I’m just afraid of next year’s price will jump around.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rosa Ellen at newsroom@phnompenhpost.com

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