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Cambodia's Kampot Pepper Makes a Comeback

Kampot province in southern Cambodia was long famous for the quality of its pepper. But under the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, almost all of the province's pepper plantations were uprooted to make way for rice. Now a local company is leading an effort to revive Kampot pepper by earning it Geographical Indication protection, similar to Champagne or Parmesan cheese.

Many French chefs consider Kampot pepper the best in the world.

During the French colonial era, about one million pepper plants were grown in the province, mainly to produce pepper for export to France.

Famed for its strong, yet delicate, aroma, Kampot pepper can range from intensely spicy to mildly sweet.

Jerome Benezech, the director of Farmlink, which is working with local farmers to increase pepper production, says the pepper's unique flavor is thanks to a combination of factors found only in Kampot.

He says Kampot pepper has a distinct flavor. It has a very fresh aroma with hints of eucalyptus and it lingers in the palate. He says its unique flavor is due to the 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 of pepper farmers.

Under the Khmer Rouge government in the late 1970s, Kampot's famous pepper plantations were uprooted and replaced with rice fields.

But in recent years the spice has been making a comeback and production is once again on the rise.

Farmlink works with 125 local farmers with the aim of doubling pepper production over the next five years.

More than 20,000 pepper vines have been planted since 2003 - still a fraction of the amount produced under the French.

Many pepper farmers like Ngnoun Lay come from generations of pepper growers:

He says since he was born his mother and father grew pepper and now he does the same thing. In fact, he says, they have grown pepper in his family for the last four generations. Whether the price is high or low he stills plant pepper because, apart from growing rice, it is all he has ever known.

Farmlink staff members say that while pepper requires more labor than growing rice, it is more profitable for farmers.

Kampot pepper is the first Cambodian product to apply for Geographical Indication protection similar to Champagne or Parmesan cheese. GI status means that only pepper actually grown in Kampot can use that name.

Angela Vestergaard, Farmlink's marketing director, leads the effort to secure GI status. The aim is to help promote Kampot pepper around the world, and to protect its quality.

She says the GI project will protect the environment in this region and make sure that Kampot pepper keeps its high quality and is not mixed with lesser quality peppers. She says Farmlink wants the consumer to be guaranteed the highest quality and to be sure that what they are getting is authentic Kampot pepper.

Despite the economic slowdown, demand for Kampot pepper is growing, although more slowly than before.

But 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.