The Balkans is an extraordinary region that boasts a wealth of breathtaking landscapes, cultural heritage and fantastic food. Across the Balkans, a higher percentage of people are engaged in agriculture that in Western Europe. In Italy just 3% of the population works in agriculture, compared with 40% in Albania, 30% in Romania, and 25% in Serbia. People are leaving rural areas in their droves: across rural Bulgaria there are now 500 ghost towns. The need to protect and conserve traditional agricultural practices and cultures is clear. But doing so in a land where such systems are marked by the legacy of communism and political conflict is not easy.
Slow Food has been working with the ESSEDRA project to meet these challenges. The ESSEDRA brings together NGO’s and grassroots projects in order to influence public policy on agriculture and rural development. The project has been running for two years and has already obtained encouraging results. Throughout the Balkans and Turkey there are now 80 food communities and 16 presidia that work to safeguard traditional knowledge systems and create local and sustainable economies. But this is a drop in the ocean.
Currently, geographical indicators protect 1,434 products in Europe – the majority of which come from France, Italy and Spain. Greece boasts 107 but across the rest of the region there are a meager four. Work carried out by Slow Food and ESSEDRA has mapped traditional foods at risk of extinction. Currently 274 products or breeds have been identified and around 100 of them have been added to the Ark of Taste. This work has helped identify the various food categories to which the products belong: 33% are animal breeds or products like cured meets and cheeses.
This process can help determine in which areas the project needs to work in the future. For example, by promoting the value of these rare breeds in the market or by helping producers to interpret hygiene regulations surrounding production. It is not an easy challenge. As coordinator for Slow Food in the Balkans, Michele Rumiz, said: “The big fish always eats the small one.” Over the next two years the project will continue this work, prepare national position papers for each country involved and bring together experts and leaders in the local communities to improve production.
From mountain cheeses, jams and preserves to spirits and wine, the Balkan countries lay claim to some of the most outstanding products Europe has to offer. Ten years ago in the Gentle mountain range of Gledic in central Serbia, a group of passionate artisans got together to produce Plum Rakija from a local variety of plum called the Cervena Ranka. In their community the production and consumption of this drink was a traditional social rite. As Dragana Veljovic explained: “ Rules are the same for small and large producers. We had no help from local and national government.”
Today you can find this wonderful, pale-yellow liquor at the stalls of the International Presidia Market at Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre. A traditional Balkan treasure restored and revitalized with a clean profound flavor that has given new life to the local distillers of Gledic.