Cambodian pepper capital' creates new life from old spice" (Cambodia)


Though crews have cleared 284 million square meters of land since 1992, millions of landmines remain - most of them in farm fields.


(25.09.2006)

"Here: number one, not number two," says Billy, a motorcycle taxi driver who has spent his whole 27 years in this somnolent town on the Cambodian coast. He doesn't mean the best in the country or the best in Asia. He means supreme in all the world.

Granted, Billy has seen little of the world beyond this province abutting Vietnam.
In fact, he just made it to Phnom Penh, the capital 85 miles northeast, for the first time last year. But he knows a good peppercorn when he tastes it.

Crushed black pepper with salt and lime is the pivotal condiment in Kep's seafood cuisine. This is the dip without which grilled fish, shrimp or crab simply wouldn't be.
Piper nigrum, its Latin name, is a storied spice whose use in Europe dates at least to the fourth century B.C.

This little shriveled berry is linked to the rise and fall of empires, to a spice trade that shaped the course of early navigation.
A lot went into that shaker on the American table. We infrequently think of that. We pick it up without ado - a little black pepper for the salad, a little more for the soup. It's really a sprinkle of history.

History in the making, too.
Take that pepper from Kep - pepper born of war and destitution, just a decade ago. It is testimony that once again, Kep's fields are growing as they should, after years of battle that rendered them useless.

Drive the highway north out of Kep. Turn left onto a rugged red road as it slices through scrub beneath a cobalt sky. Turn left again at a bumpy path that transects a large patch of leafy vines. At the top of the hill, you'll meet a 26-year-old farmer named Pon See, who will agree with every word that Billy says.

"This pepper is number one, the best," he assures. Certainly he speaks of taste - voluminous, brave and piquant - but also the fact that black pepper sustains a peaceful life for himself, his wife and their young child on the flanks of the South China Sea.

That wasn't possible in recent times, but times have changed. Gone are the days when people planted bombs and mines instead of pepper.
During the '50s and '60s, Kep was the playground of Cambodia's rich and elite. But the Khmer Rouge bombed this little town to pieces, again and again, and today the ghostly remains of roofless villas lend this seaside getaway an oddly enchanting flavor.

The last Khmer Rouge soldiers defected to the Cambodian government in 1998, effectively ending a quarter-century of conflict. But the detritus remained: fertile soils laced with mines.

"When I first came, there were mines where the road is," Pon See recalls. "Some people cut the trees to make the road, and they hit mines. Some died. Some didn't."
The government cleared these fields four years ago, he says.

Now, Kep is reviving. People are coming - a slow trickle of tourists, yes; but also Cambodians like Pon See. They're finding new life in the fields.
Pon See had spent the war years near the Vietnam border, but when the fighting ended, he answered the government's call: Come to Kep, the people were told. It's safe now, and there will be jobs.

For Pon See, it was pepper. He doesn't actually own this farm, but he manages the land for a boss in nearby Kampot town. He makes $40 a month to oversee another full-time worker and extra hires when seasonal work requires them. Pon See is happy with his wages and he's happy with his job.

He's rather happy with the output, too. "In a good year, we get 800 to 1,000 kilograms" (about 1,800 to 2,200 pounds).
His pepper lasts for hours on the tongue. Try it green, straight from the vine, and you'll relish a sweetness, like jasmine, hidden behind the spice. Toss it in a stir-fry, and the little green berries burst in the mouth: hot, but not unbearable.

That pepper leaves Pon See's farm, going on to Phnom Penh, and from there, to points around Asia and beyond.
While Cambodia's pepper exports have yet to register highly in international trade logs, they're starting to make a blip. The Greater Mekong Subregion Business Forum notes pepper as a potential post-conflict investment.

And Vietnam's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development reports that Cambodian pepper is beginning to supplement Vietnam's homegrown production, the largest in the world.
Pepper has thrived in these parts since the 16th century, but its story stretches back much farther than that.

The spice most likely originated on India's Malabar coast. From there, it was carried across the Red Sea, up the Nile, through Alexandria and into the Roman Empire.
After Rome fell in the fifth century, Byzantium picked up the pepper business, followed by Muslim traders, who controlled the spice routes between India and the Mediterranean, and Italians.

Pepper's exorbitant price made it affordable only to the rich. The Portuguese were determined to give the Italians a run for their money and in the late 15th and early 16th centuries came to dominate the pepper trade. Vasco da Gama set foot in India, seeking "Christians and spices." He succeeded, sort of. He made the first and took the second.

By the 1660s, the Portuguese lost their pepper ports to the Dutch, trade expanded, and pepper became an everyday spice for everyday Europeans.
Today, pepper accounts for one-fifth of the world's trade in spices. To wit: that pepper shaker on most every Milwaukee table. It's so popular that pepper has been dubbed "the master spice."

Its history is rife with legend. Pepper was used instead of coins in ancient times, when it was weighed like precious metal. It was the ransom demanded - three thousand pounds' worth - when Rome was captured early in the 5th century.

Pharaoh Ramses II of Egypt was mummified with peppercorns crammed in his nose. In South Asia, centuries-old medicines have employed pepper as a remedy for everything from constipation to diarrhea, earache, gangrene, heart disease, hernia, indigestion, tooth decay and, well, most any illness.
Pon See doesn't know all that. What he knows much better is the horror that preceded his peaceful little wooden shack on a breezy, salty-air farm along the southern edge of Cambodia. And he knows he's rather lucky to have this farm to work, free of mines and bombs.

That is not the case for thousands of small-scale farmers across the country.
Though crews have cleared 284 million square meters of land since 1992, millions of landmines remain - most of them in farm fields.

When large tracts of agricultural land are cleared of mines, they then are divided into plots for anticipated new arrivals. Such was the case with Pon See's farm and others like it at the base of these hills.

But no two hills are alike. Billy, the motorcycle driver, whisks past a small mountain behind homes lining the highway outside Kep. Still mined, he says. "Sometimes a cow grazes there and you hear boom, boom, boom."
Perhaps Pon See knows this, when he bites into the little green fruits that cover his fields.

It's quiet here, beneath the vines. So quiet, perhaps, he can savor it all - the zip of a good peppercorn, with the sweet kick of peace.


Von: 26.9.06, www.jsonline.com by Karen Coates

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