"Not all the people of the Mediterranean manage to become Mediterraneans," wrote Predrag Matvejevic in Mediterranean Breviary. His is a vaguely oracular judgment, very much in the style of this Croatian intellectual. If you think of the perception of the Balkan countries we still have in the West, his sentence seems strikingly true. Indeed, the Slav peoples, who live just beyond the "turbulent" Adriatic coast, have not yet entered into a common European mental geography, much less a Mediterranean one. They remain "the other Europe", cut off from the great tourist flows, perennially on the verge of annexation into the European Union, their character still somewhat exotic and hard to decipher. The voyage along the Danube recounted by Claudio Magris in his 1986 book, Danube, was one of the first to offer an empathetic view of that world. And yet, once he had left behind the glow of Vienna and the Parisian style of Budapest, the stops along the river journey began to seem distant and unfamiliar, as though he was sailing down the Zambezi and not one of the most important axes of Western civilization.
These days, the perception is less fuzzy, but the sense of otherness remains. Let's think, for example, of food, of agricultural products, of gastronomy; in other words the central themes of our movement. Despite all the media coverage of the subject, when did you last read about a Slav chef? Is it possible that not a single one exists capable of standing alongside the usual familiar names? Or maybe we just don't know enough about this world. When it comes to European specialties, which Balkan salami or oil or cheese springs to mind? Some eno-fanatic might be able to name a few wines, but that's about it. We at Slow Food have been the only ones to switch on a few spotlights by setting up the odd Presidium. And yet there's great fervor in these countries, an interest in the issues in question that deserves to be explored further. With great effort, civil society is starting to rediscover traditions halfburied by history, shaking off the silence of half a century of socialism and the standardization originally imposed by the Turkish occupation. Rediscovering local products and traditional recipes means reactivating channels of communication with a past that seemed as if it had been erased forever. At times, it means fighting against institutions that have decided to devote themselves to modernity, to European laws, to a misconception of food safety.
In order to regain a sense of local traditions, it is necessary to listen to the memories of the most marginalized populations, in borderlands and in less developed areas, leaving behind the asphyxia of global brands, mass distribution and Western standardization. Take, for example, the 1,185 Adriatic islands, of which only 66 are permanently inhabited. People have always raised goats and sheep on these islands, making cheese from their milk. The cheese from Pago is very famous and industrial imitations abound, but pastoralists on many of the inhabited islands also make tiny quantities of cheeses with intense aromas of lavender, myrtle, rosemary and the sea. With poor soil and frequent droughts, the islands cannot sustain large cattle farms, but goats survive. And the inland mountains are harsh too, rocky and looming with sudden flashes of wild beauty.
Yet pastoralism is still very much alive in almost all the mountain areas of the Balkans. In Bosnia they raise the Domaca Balkanska Rogata goats, Busha and Gatako cattle, which have adapted to the poor pastures, and Pramenka sheep. Milk from these breeds is used to make the cheeses of Vares, the more famous ones of Livno and the Presidium Cheese in a Sack, sir iz mijeha. Most are made from a blend of milks in varying proportions, depending on the season, produced in the mountains and sold on the local market. Italian NGOs and Oxfam have done a great job in helping regulate production of Cheese in a Sack, bringing it up to acceptable safety standards, developing more regular marketing and convincing local institutions to allow artisan raw milk production to continue. Nonetheless, production of the cheese is still at risk today. Moving up towards Bulgaria and the Stara Planina massif, we find more sheep's cheeses, made from the milk of the Tetevan breed, one of the smallest in Europe. The cheeses are made in mountain dairies in the summer, then matured in cellars in Tcherni Vit. Here the specific climatic conditions and humidity favor the veins of noble molds that mottle Zeleno Sirene, "green cheese", another Slow Food Presidium. Bulgaria's Pirin mountains are home to another sheep breed on the verge of extinction: the Karakachan, also a Slow Food Presidium. Just 800 exemplars survive of this small breed, which produces a thick, fragrant milk from which unforgettable yogurts are made.
Mixed cow's and sheep's milk cheeses are produced on the Serbian side of Stara Planina. The most famous is Kashkaval, the ancestor of Italy's stretched-curd cheeses. Here it is round in shape and remarkably creamy. Serbia is a country with great agricultural potential and plenty of pasture for livestock farming. Many of the cattle breeds are of Western origin, but one of the hardiest, the small Busha, very resistant to disease and extreme climates, still survives here too. Transhumance still continues in the Mavrovo national park In Macedonia, on the border with Kosovo. Sharplaninska sheep spend the summers up in high-mountain pastures where the pastoralist-cheesemakers produce Belo Sirene, similar to Feta, and excellent Kashkaval, a Slow Food Presidium. In Romania, the typical Branza sheep's cheese is produced throughout the Carpathians, but the finest comes from the Bucegi mountains, where it is aged in fir bark. It too is a Slow Food Presidium.
This schematic reconnaissance has only just grazed the surface of Balkan cheese production, and has deliberately left aside Greek cheeses, amply protected by a series of European PDOs. But it gives an idea of how much there is to explore and promote. Not forgetting the excellence of the yogurt made in many regions and the omnipresent kajmak, made by skimming off the cream that rises to the surface, especially of sheep's and goat's milk, prior to cheesemaking.
This fantastic world is in real danger of disappearing, perhaps even more so than that of Western European dairy production. In the Balkans, the prevailing conviction is that rationalization requires the closure of small-scale dairies not up to legal standards, forced adaptation to EU rules and the concentration and standardization of processing techniques.
It would be a huge disappointment to see all this biodiversity disappear. We must intervene immediately, making a huge effort to protect and raise awareness about these products. Slow Food has already started moving, and we plan to be even more active in the years to come, but we can't do it alone. Europe has to look eastwards, otherwise we'll run the risk of losing an agrifood heritage of enormous potential.
Slow Food Foundation President