108 Products in the Balkan Ark

Over 1,400 geographical indications are registered in Europe, but just four come from the Balkans and Turkey. Why? And, more importantly, are these four products all that the Balkans and Turkey have to offer in terms of local, artisanal foods?

The socialist legacy is not enough of an explanation to justify such a disheartening picture, especially as just a little further north, former Communist countries like Poland and the Czech Republic are obtaining much better results (with 37 and 36 products respectively). Neither would it be correct to think that there is little food biodiversity in the Balkans: Greece alone is home to more than 100 of those 1,400 products.

Traditional, artisanal foods and small-scale farmers have long been ignored by the political agenda in the Balkans and Turkey. But these foods could support many rural communities in the region and contribute to a significant increase in social and economic capital for small-scale farmers and producers. Thanks to the EU-funded ESSEDRA project, we have finally been able to start influencing the legislation and political processes that are currently limiting small-scale farmers’ access to the market. The project also makes it possible to work out which food products must be saved so that they can become the driving forces behind sustainable development in rural communities.

This summer, our partners worked on a major research project, seeking out gastronomic treasures at risk of extinction, based on the criteria set out by the Ark of Taste. In just a few months they managed to identify 108 foods, concrete proof of just how much untapped potential the region holds.

A third of the products identified during the field research are of animal origin: from the many types of cheeses aged in animal skins (usually sheepskin, and known as tulum in Turkey) to Bulgarian salame from the Strandzha mountain, from Romanian sloi (preserved lamb) to the Serbian hams from the Banat region. The majority of these products face similar problems, as small-scale producers seek to conform to food safety and hygiene regulations. EU member states and candidate countries often apply EU rules without appropriate exceptions or adaptations for small-scale businesses. The relevant authorities find it easier to visit a few industrial production sites with ISO 9000 certification instead of trying to understand how to safeguard a gastronomic heritage made of non-standardized traditions and ancient techniques.

However, these products are not just in danger because of regulations. Even though traditional varieties and breeds reflect local culture and knowledge, and centuries of adaptation to the environment; when no added value is accorded to them, new versions are easily introduced. This was the case with the Busha, a native cattle breed, once commonly farmed throughout the Balkans and prized for its hardiness and ability to adapt to tough conditions. Now, however, the Busha only survives in small herds raised by tenacious farmers in remote areas of Herzegovina and Stara Planina.

Often, the producers themselves adopt new varieties because they do not value their own experience and tradition. The lencho white bean (Bulgaria), Bukovo paprika (Macedonia) and osmak white corn (Serbia) all lack adequate promotion and protection, partly because of the low esteem in which the rural communities hold themselves and their resources. Seeking out local food products at risk of extinction is not enough to ensure the survival of these traditions, or their contribution to the sustainable development of rural areas. But it is the first step towards demanding that local and national policy-makers safeguard and promote these hidden treasures, which could boost sustainable rural development and facilitate consumers’ access to good, clean and fair food. And it is also a question of pride: The Balkans must take their rightful place within the gastronomic (and cultural) map of Europe.

* ESSEDRA stands for Environmentally Sustainable Socio-Economic Development of Rural Areas. The project is co-funded by the European Union, the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) and the Civil Society Facility (CSF).
** The ESSEDRA partners are VIS Albania (Albania), Okusi Hercegovinu (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Association of Slow Food Convivia in Bulgaria (Bulgaria), KinoOkus (Croatia), Slou Fud Bitola (Republic of Macedonia), Adept Foundation (Romania), Natura Balkanika (Serbia) and Mutfak Dostlari Dernegi (Turkey).

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