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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.

France’s Louis XV once declared Tokaji to be “wine of kings and the king of wines” after receiving a crate from a Transylvanian prince. Three centuries later, French winemakers, allied with Italians and Slovenes, fought a losing battle with Hungary for the right to call their wines Tokaji. After Hungary joined the EU in 2004, Brussels agreed with Budapest that only the golden nectars from northeastern Hungary (and a strip of land in neighboring Slovakia) can carry the prestigious label.

France, Germany and Greece all objected to Italy’s attempt to register Aceto Balsamico di Modena, claiming balsamic vinegar had become a generic term for the pungent black condiment. After no compromise was found, the European Commission concurred with the Italians that the stuff has to be produced within the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

The EU database includes over 800 foodstuffs and almost 2,000 wines and spirits. Protected items range from well known specialties, including Scotch whisky and Roquefort cheese, to more obscure treats, such as the Flemish-Brabant table grapes grown in the hothouses south of Brussels and eight varieties of Portuguese honey. To qualify for the EU’s protected status, the foods must be produced by traditional methods in the specified regions.

The rules can be strict. Stilton can only be made in the three central English counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, not in the Cambridgeshire village that gave the cheese it its name. Tradition has it that Stilton grew famous for selling the creamy blue cheese to travelers along the Great North Road in the 18th century but it was never made there.

Italian salami producers are still battling in the European courts over who can call their sausage “salame di Felino.” Spanish authorities recently ruled that marketing wine as Rioja could be a case of criminal fraud if the tipple was not produced in the highland vineyards of that northern region.

The EU’s system has its critics, not least in the United States and other trading partners who have objected to Europe’s largely successful efforts to ban imports of Wisconsin-made parmesan or port wine from South Africa.

However, the EU says the rules are essential to maintain food quality and Europe’s diverse gastronomic heritage.

"Europe has a fantastic tradition of quality regional foods,” said Michael Mann, the European Commission’s spokesman on agricultural issues.

“Our system gives crucial protection to producers of regional specialities, ensuring that they can't be ripped off by inferior copies,” he told GlobalPost. “This is good for the producers, but also for consumers, who know they are getting the real thing."