Rice, sugar cane abound, but barely a drop to drink

Perhaps the time is ripe for ‘Cambodia’s Best Bounty’

rum 3This post originated a couple of months ago when I strolled down an alley off a street that amounts to another alley on my way to do an errand.  There, on a wooden gate that was ajar, a small sign arrested my progress.  It was on a fence shielding what had been one of Phnom Penh’s numerous villas.

The words lured me inside to see what was going on.

I thereby found myself at the beginning of a journalistic journey, which I continued on a visit to Siem Reap.  In that city, I interviewed entrepreneurs producing rice spirits under the name of Sombai and rums called Georges, all infused with local ingredients such as ginger, lemongrass and, yes, coffee.

rum 6In that Phnom Penh alley, I had happened upon an adolescent pint-sized rum distillery and one of the three owners, Diego Wilkins, who was born in Uruguay.  His two partners are from Venezuela.

Although my inquiries have been not quite as thorough as they would have been were I being compensated for my reporting then and later, I learned that Cambodia is rich in agricultural resources and is poor in exploiting them. Someone attributed the situation to the Khmer Rouge, who all but obliterated generations of those individuals who knew how to take advantage of some of this nation’s produce beyond the mere consumption and export of the unaltered product.

With vast amounts of rice, palm sugar, coconuts, bananas and sugar cane being raised here, among other things, I came to wonder why thriving businesses producing quality wines and spirits (emphasis on “quality”) appear to be all but nonexistent?  While there is a range of locally supplied agricultural products, you who live in the West are not going to find them on the shelves of your nearby Costco, Grand Union, Fairway or Safeway.

rum 8

Except for the red-plaid jars of imported jams, this one section of two areas in an organic-foods store contains products aimed at residents of Phnom Penh, not tourists.

rum 9

Justly appreciated peppercorns from Kampot fill about half of this display in the same store.

Peppercorns from Kampot province are exceptional, and they may be sold elsewhere.  Although I am hardly up-to-date on the peppers of the world, I hadn’t heard of that kind until I first visited here.  My strong advice is to grab Kampot pepper if you see it, especially if you find green peppercorns (scroll down to seventh subhead in the link).

One socially responsible concern, Confirel, produces an organic spicy sauce of pepper and vinegar on the Kirum label as well as Kampot pepper herbal teas composed of pepper, lemongrass, ginger, jasmine and orthosiphon, the latter being flowers and leaves that “facilitate the elimination of excess fluid in a natural way and actively support weight loss diets.”  But I rather doubt you’ve come across those teas or the sauce.

Conferral also works with locals to produce palm sugars, candies, palm spirits and an effervescent drink.

As for wine made from rice, there exists stuff that may be a jot better than the occasionally deadly moonshine not uncommonly found in the provinces.  But, well. . . let’s just say there’s a reason you’re not seeing much, if any, of it on the shelves of stores outside of Cambodia (and not so prevalent inside either).

Authors of the Lonely Planet Cambodia drank a liquid produced from grapes by a winery that I mistakenly thought had closed in Battambang. because I was unable to find it after heading there from Siem Reap just for fun. The travel writers discovered that the wine was special, though not in a good way:

…a bouquet unlike anything you’ve ever encountered in a bottle with the word ‘wine’ on the label, and a taste as surprising as the aftertaste. Banon wines belong to that exclusive club of wineries whose vintages improve significantly with the addition of ice cubes…

Unsurprisingly in this part of the world, sake from Japan swamps our market.

Regarding wines made from palm sugar, I suppose they are okay as a dessert, though I, for one, prefer chocolate ice cream.

Diego Wilkins at the distillery, which also is a bar on Thursday nights only.

Diego Wilkins at the Samai distillery, which also is a bar on Thursday nights only.

Samai’s Diego Wilkins contends that no rum produced here approaches international standards, no match for Bacardi, for example.  And who am I to argue with him?

Saying that he and his partners had been used to drinking good rum before their arrival in Cambodia, Wilkins related how the idea of making their own version emerged one night of working on a bottle they had imported.

Samai's still was imported from Spain.

Samai’s lone still was imported.

Using a still from Portugal and barrels from Spain, they embarked on their undertaking in the summer of 2013 and began selling their first 100 bottles a month ago. That was dark rum, but soon to come is an exceptional variation flavored with Kampot pepper as early as April if all goes well.  (I had a taste.)  In a country where a liter of Bombay Sapphire gin usually goes for under $12, Samai’s price of $25 a bottle is intoxicatingly impressive.

“The idea is to create premium rum with the best Cambodian raw products,” Wilkins told me.  While Samai doesn’t process sugar cane, it purchases top-quality molasses as the essential raw material.  When the rum finally is distilled, it is sent to a laboratory for testing.

If anyone here is making a rum of its equal, I haven’t seen or tasted it.

Samai’s challenges are twofold.  One is producing sufficient quantities for export, and that capacity seems to be a long, long way off.  The other is developing a market in a country where beer apparently reins supreme, though spirits and imported wines are readily available.

“We need to create a culture about rum,” Wilkins concedes, mentioning mojitos and piña coladas as examples of under-appreciated options.

Wilkins and the other entrepreneurs — none of whom has previous experience in distilling — face similar challenges.  Their production is low and wide appeal seems to be elusive, mostly tourists and expats.

Sebastian Fevrier, right, tempts a customer (who happens to be unmoved).

Sebastien Fevrier, right, tempts a customer (who ultimately happens to be unmoved).

“People here have the misconception that everything is cheap,” said Sebastien Fevrier after I tracked him down at Siem Reap’s Art Center night market when I was in town mainly to revisit Angkor Wat.  Depending on the quantity of 200 ml to 700 ml, his infused rums go for $8 to $20.

Having followed his father Georges to the city in 2013, Fevrier dived into the business of marketing the alcohol that his father produces only a couple of years ago.

Georges, a chef from the island of Réunion near Madagascar, adds flavors such as vanilla, kaffir lime, cinnamon, passion fruit and tamarind to the rum under his name.  But the family doesn’t do its own distilling, according to Fevrier, who said that the alcohol comes from suppliers both in Cambodia and elsewhere.  He seemed to be a little cagey about the source.

“Only now are we breaking even,” said Sebastien Fevrier, who also sells his father’s chutneys, jams and a paste called “achard,” a culinary specialty native to the Indian and Pacific Ocean islands that is composed of fruits, vegetables and spices, under the Georges label.

Lionel Matrepierre with substantial portion of wine being infused in a small room upstairs from his shop.

Lionel Maitrepierre with substantial portion of the spirits being infused with assorted flavors in a small room upstairs from his shop.  Those shown contain lemongrass and lemon.

Lionel Maitrepierre and his wife Joelle have been producing Sombai infused spirits of up to 31 percent alcohol only since the beginning of last year.  Their concept is twofold: to infuse two flavors into each of the spirits and to sell them in hand-painted bottles.  He purchases the alcohol already distilled from a Cambodian supplier.

Like Fevrier, they followed family to Siem Reap from Europe.  Since his brother ran a bar in town, his patrons became their guinea pigs.  “Let’s see how it works,” says Maitrepierre of that approach.  “People seemed to like it.”

He has learned much in tastings that he conducts in the out-of-the-way building in Siem Reap where they sell and produce the infusions.  (I got lost twice trying to find the place, and Maitrepierre graciously rescued me on his moto on my second attempt.) For one thing, now he knows that Asian women prefer the coconut-pineapple version and men, lemongrass-lemon.

Other options include galangal-tamarind, mango-chili, anise-coffee and banana-cinnamon at prices ranging from $5 for a 100 ml bottle to $20 for a handsome 700 ml one.

All of Sombai's bottles are hand-painted, providing work for locals, including one accountant who enjoys the effort, says Maitrepierre.

All of Sombai’s bottles are hand-painted, providing work for locals, including one accountant who enjoys the effort, says Maitrepierre.

Maitrepierre reports that he has some 140 bars, travel agencies, hotels and other customers in addition to his own retail sales, the vast majority of them in Siem Reap.

For him and other entrepreneurs here, the dream must be to have the interest and ability to export the alcohol. Although there have been feints from exporters that faltered, each says nothing tangible has resulted in part because the amount they currently produce is so small.

Yet there must be considerable opportunity to take far greater advantage of the country’s resources.  Not only would doing so benefit farmers in this largely agricultural country, but it also will provide work to others.

For example, Maitrepierre says he has some 14 full-time employees and half a dozen others.

As for the Georges operation, Fevrier boasts 13 Cambodians who work full time at salaries ranging from $100 to $200 a month.  The former civil engineer, miner in Australia and French teacher in Japan expresses a hope of promoting one of them to manager at $400 a month plus profit-sharing.  “I want someone to take my place here,” Fevrier insists.

The benefits of such enterprises are clear.  The dilemma is how to promote more of them and help those that already exist to blossom.

Once there was a tea plantation, but the Khmer Rouge caused it to disappear, and only weeds exist there now.  Coffee from Mondulkiri is the best in the country, but it doesn’t measure up to my admittedly high standard.  And it appears that the winery in Battambang is still struggling, but I hope I am wrong about that.

It is possible to find cashew schnapps (that’s what they call it, and, no, I haven’t thought to try it), cashew butter, cassava chips, peanut butter, dried tropical fruits, palm sugar, coconut oil, palm oil and other processed produce.  As for cassava chips, someone told me that much of the crop is shipped to Thailand, where it is turned into chips and then imported by Cambodian concerns, hardly a maximum benefit to the kingdom’s economy.

In one supermarket, the selection of alcohol imported from Japan warms the display of local products at the end of the shelfs.

In one supermarket, the selection of alcohol imported from Japan and China dwarfs the narrow display (toward the bottom of this post) of local products at the short end of the shelfs.

The large quantity of wines and spirits from elsewhere in Asia suggests enormous potential for Cambodia products.

The large quantity of wines and spirits from elsewhere in Asia suggests enormous potential for Cambodia products. Pictured is the other side of the display above.

Heaven knows, however, that there is plenty of rice and sugar cane, though there has been significant controversy about the latter industry as committing human rights abuse.  The quantities raised are enormous, but it appears that the amounts transformed into food and drink for export to the West are between laughably small to nonexistent.  Therein may lie the biggest potential for market development.

Although I sprang for the three small bottles in translucent packages, I haven't felt the urge to sample them.

Although I sprang for the three small bottles in translucent packages, I haven’t felt the urge to sample them or purchase the flavored palm wines and spirits from Comfirel.

One answer to overlooked opportunity perhaps would be the creation of an association that might be called “Cambodia’s Best Bounty” to overcome competitive concerns, encourage development of quality goods and promote fine products to the rest of the world.

The logistical, financial and organizational hurdles that would have to be overcome are daunting, indeed.  How tragic that so little is made of so much potential.

E-mail: malcolmncarter.com

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