What feta and reindeer meat have in common

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.

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."