There's been a lot of controversy surrounding Parmesan cheese recently. Most recently, a Pennsylvania company was busted for passing off wood pulp as Parmesan. Before that, a group of thieves stole nearly a million dollars worth of real-deal Parmigiano-Reggiano throughout central and northern Italy. People steal and commit fraud in the name of Parmesan because true Parmigiano-Reggiano is expensive and rare—thanks to European Union laws, the fabled cheese can only come from specific Italian provinces. Real producers laugh at our inferior, American-made Parmesan.
Europe cares deeply about the provenance of its food—Champagne, Armagnac brandy, Parma ham, and Gorgonzola are similarly protected in the European Union by Europe's protected geographical indication (PGI) laws. Alongside those fabled culinary delicacies, Europeans can now be sure that when they purchase Cambodia's Kampot pepper they are getting authentic stuff from one of the 342 families who grow it in the tiny Kep province of Cambodia.
"It is the first Cambodian product to receive this status in the EU," the charge d'affaires of the European Union's delegation to Cambodia, Alain Vandersmissen, told the AP. "From now on, [Kampot pepper] will benefit from a very high level of protection on the EU market."
Kampot pepper is a chef favorite, a rare pepper that has been grown in Cambodia since the 13th century. According to the AP, last year just 60 tons of Kampot pepper were produced, and 70 percent of that was exported—primarily to the EU, the United States, and Japan. Those in the know credit the Kampot region's mineral-rich soil for its floral and sweet flavor.
While chefs abroad may add unique flair to their dishes with Kampot peppercorns, in Kep, it's commonly stir-fried—whole peppercorns and stalks alike—with crab and other seafood.
The Kampot pepper industry took off in the 19th and 20th centuries after the French colonized Cambodia. French chefs at top restaurants prized the pepper for its rich and fiery taste, and it was a delicacy at top Parisian restaurants. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 1970s, the industry was devastated. Only recently has the pepper industry begun to take off again.
Now with protected geographical indication status, Kampot pepper looks poised to thrive. Nguon Lay, the president of the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association, said the group is delighted to get PGI status. "The status will help improve our living standard as more and more customers become impressed with our Kampot pepper," he said.
But if you ever head to the market in Kampot looking for the real deal, let the buyer beware. Some warn that vendors might be selling fake Kampot pepper, and you could get burned. The best way to get your hands on real Kampot while in Cambodia is to go straight to the pepper farm. Ironically, it's in Europe that you don't have to worry about its authenticity.