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What feta and reindeer meat have in common

Serbs become the latest to worry that their ethnic cuisine will be registered by an EU country.

A feta merchant slices a piece of the cheese in a central Athens store Oct. 25, 2005. Greece won the exclusive right to call its white salty cheese "feta" after the European Union's top court ended a long legal battle against Denmark and Germany. The European Court of Justice ruled that the definition of feta was reserved for cheese from Greece alone, as it had been registered as a protected designation of origin by the European Commission in 2002. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

NIS, Serbia — In early autumn in southern Serbia markets are ablaze with the new crop of peppers and minds turn to the arduous task of making ajvar, a garlic-infused red pepper paste that is a beloved culinary treasure.

This year, however, there was a shadow hanging over the ritual roasting, peeling and packing of the peppers. Rumors were rife that Serbia’s Balkan neighbors were seeking to claim ajvar as their own.

It seemed that a conflict over the tangy condiment could become the latest battle in a series of European food wars that already includes the feta fight, a trans-border tussle over Tokaji and a battle for balsamic.

According to the rumormongers in Nis, Slovenia is planning to take advantage of its membership of the European Union by registering ajvar on the EU list of registered geographical food labels — a system that ensures that parmesan cheese must come from around Parma, Italy; champagne from the eponymous region of northern France; and Welsh lamb from Wales.

As if that were not bad enough, many here were convinced that other Serb favorites are threatened by covetous Balkan neighbors, from the fiery sljivivica plum brandy to the skinless mincemeat sausages known as cevapcici.

At EU headquarters in Brussels, officials are reassuring.

None of those Balkan delicacies is included on any nation’s list of applications for European protected status. A Slovene business man did once unsuccessfully try to privately trademark ajvar and the Macedonian government last year announced it wanted to prevent anybody passing off their version as “Macedonian ajvar,” but none of that should infringe upon the Serbs' right to manufacture, market or gorge themselves on the pepper paste.

The ajvar battle may be a phony war, but the EU has had to deal with several real food fights since 1992, when it first set its system of protected status for traditional regional foods.

The fracas over feta cheese is the best known of the EU’s culinary confrontations.

After years of legal wrangling, Greece finally won the right to exclusive use of the feta name for its briny, white sheep’s milk cheese. Producers of imitations in Denmark, Germany, France and Britain were given until 2007 to rebrand.

The Greek victory did not end Europe’s food battles. For two years, a pair of the EU’s new eastern members raised a stink about rights to a cheese called oscypek by Poles north of the Tatra Mountains and ostipok by Slovaks to the south. A compromise was finally reached in last year whereby the Slovaks would call their version “Slovensky ostipok.”

The reindeer row between Sweden and Finland was resolved this year after Stockholm agreed to Finland’s exclusive use of the term “Lapin Poron Liha,” to market the strong red meat from, yes, the creatures that pull Santa’s sleigh, raised in Finnish Lapland.