Mapping Balkan Biodiversity

Four years have passed since Dessislava Dimitrova had the foresight and wisdom to invite convivium leaders from across the Balkans region to Smilyan in Bulgaria to launch the Terra Madre Balkans network. The idea was brilliant in its simplicity: No single country in this fragmented corner of Europe had enough critical mass on its own to defend its gastronomy from the standardizing impact of globalization. Safeguarding this gastronomic heritage would require a communal effort that went beyond national borders.

The Terra Madre Balkans network
In one of the rare authentic mehane (taverns), the group gathered for the inaugural meeting arranged the region’s Slow Food Presidia products in the center of the table: Tcherni Vit green cheese, Mavrovo Reka mountain pasture kashkaval, wild fig and Pozegaca plum slatko. These hidden gastronomic jewels represented a small treasure for the many rural communities in the Balkans, who all too often do not know how or where to begin constructing their future. The Terra Madre Balkans network was founded then, to preserve food biodiversity and to guarantee that new generations will still be able to find these stories, these traditions and these flavors intact.

In just four years, this challenge has been taken on by the over 1,500 members, 11 Slow Food Presidia, 60 food communities, 15 food education programs and 25 cooks who form the Terra Madre Balkans network. The network is united above all by the desire to show to Europe and the world that the gastronomy of the Balkans is not second-rate. The region, where Hungarian, Slavic, Turkish and Mediterranean cuisines have been mingling for centuries, is home to surprisingly authentic food traditions. However, these gastronomic specialties are now at risk of disappearing and are protected only by small communities, weakened from years of marginalization and a constant hemorrhaging of young people and resources.

For this reason, in 2013 Slow Food has launched an immense project to map the region’s food biodiversity, funded by the European Commission (ESSEDRA – Environmentally Sustainable Socio-Economic Development of Rural Areas), which will involve eight countries (Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Turkey) and two years of work.

This will not be a museum-like operation. Instead, we will be collecting the experiences of small rural communities, because they must be the starting point for constructing a new Europe, more cosmopolitan and less globalized, through a development model that places communities and their traditions at the center.

At-risk products and commercial barriers
Why should artisanal food shops, homemade cured meats and raw-milk cheeses be only the prerogative of Western Europe? There are plenty of stories to be told in the Balkans as well, yet so far the European Union has granted a denomination of origin to only two products from the region. In comparison, there are over 200 in Italy alone. This does not reflect the reality. As the tools made available by the authorities are clearly not yet sufficient, Slow Food, with the help of civil society, is working to catalog traditional products one by one in the Ark of Taste: from salep from Kelmend, a powder ground from orchid tubers, mixed with milk or water to make a beverage, to rakija, a type of brandy, made in the micro-distilleries of Serbia’s Ibar Valley.

Identifying the products at risk of disappearing, however, is not enough. Equally important will be making the effort to work out what barriers are stopping small-scale producers from accessing markets with their traditional products. Too often, in fact, rural communities are held hostage by inept politicians, stifling bureaucracy and overly strict, inflexible regulations. All the while, big business can get away with almost anything, even butchering horsemeat and selling it as beef.

The Ark of Taste will therefore serve as a springboard for a wider campaign to raise awareness and inspire pride, to finally transform these countries into the leading champions of small-scale agriculture in the European Union.

Find out more about the project at

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