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The Weakest Link

A battle rages in the bureaucratic halls of Brussels. Can the European Union protect a Slovenian sausage?

Author Noah Charney Illustration Phil Marden


In a nondescript room at the Ministry of Agriculture in Zagreb, Croatia, some of the most important men in Central Europe are having an argument in which millions of Euros are at stake, as well as international reputation. As it heats up, some of the dark-suited representatives pace around their seated counterparts, rolling their eyes and shuffling paperwork. The seated delegates, for their part, have been spending a lot of time slamming their fists on the table and threatening sanctions. Over and over, as nothing is resolved, the scene becomes much like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch satirizing Cold War negotiations. But there is an important difference: The subject of this discussion is not national borders or nuclear proliferation. It is a sausage. And it isn’t going well.

The man who ignited, and hopes to resolve, the issue at hand is Dr. Janez Bogataj, an energetic, white-bearded repository of historical tidbits and nearly lost alpine traditions who is the leading (and only) culinary ethnographer in the Central European nation of Slovenia. Bogataj’s goal in this bloodless battle is simple: to protect Kranj sausage (Kranjska klobasa in Slovene), a blend of pork, bacon, sea salt, pepper and garlic that is smoked over beechwood and has long been made in the northern Slovenian town of Kranj. It is similar to, but subtler than, Polish kielbasa, and unless something is done to maintain its quality for future generations, it could soon go the way of pemmican and mincemeat pie. Worse, from Bogataj’s perspective, it might continue to be copied to the point that it is indistinguishable from other, lesser sausages. To Bogataj, and to food ethnologists and enthusiasts like him, this is a fate worse than death.

The campaign that Bogataj has spearheaded, backed by the Slovenian Ministry of Culture, is to afford Kranj sausage Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, like the ones already in place to defend foodstuffs such as Bourgogne mustard, Champagne sparkling wine and West Country Farmhouse Cheddar against copycats. It is the European Union’s food equivalent of the UNESCO designation, and it has important repercussions for international finances. Though Bogataj’s campaign to protect Kranj sausage began in 2008, protracted negotiations between Slovenia and longtime rival Croatia, which is attempting to block the sausage’s registration with the fury of a thousand vegetarians, have dragged it into a bureaucratic morass. A decision is expected, finally, this summer.

To understand why a simple sausage could cause such a stink on the stage of the European Union, one must first realize what is at stake here. Designations like the PGI are more than just a matter of national pride. A source in the EU who declined to be named says the benefits extend from job preservation—production is restricted to the traditional locality and cannot be farmed out—to extra funding from the EU. “You have a hook into quite a series, within the EU, of special support programs,” the source says from Brussels, where the EU’s PGI department decides such matters. “That means a farmer or processor may get support for trading, for buying new machines or for European marketing. You normally also have a much better hook to get into promotion programs that may be publicly supported, like going to trade fairs.”

There are less tangible benefits as well. A PGI, like a UNESCO designation, encourages tourism and the visibility of a place, which becomes associated with its specialty food. You might decide, for instance, to visit Valencia, Spain, to taste a proper paella made with the region’s protected rice, or to head off to Great Britain to taste Scotch beef. TV networks encourage this sort of travel on shows like “Bizarre Foods” and Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” Bogataj himself does it. “I remember taking a trip to taste Bayonne ham, which I sampled at a banquet for a meeting of food experts in Bordeaux, France,” he says. “They prominently displayed the blue sign indicating that it had Protected Geographical Indication.”

As for Kranj sausage, “it speaks for centuries of history. It’s a sausage that is known in North and South America, in Australia and New Zealand, not to mention throughout Europe,” Bogataj says. “The American astronaut Sunita Williams even took Kranj sausage into space with her.” As easily as tourists can visit Slovenia to taste the sausage, the sausage, as edible ambassador of Slovenia abroad, can travel to supermarkets in London and Los Angeles, spreading the name and positive association with Slovenia to people who would otherwise be hard pressed to find it on a map of Europe.

For Croatia, which has a multimillion-euro industry in a less refined style of the sausage (which sometimes even contains soy as a filler) that nevertheless goes by the name Kranj, Slovenia’s application was perceived as a threat. Initially, Germany and Austria—which both serve krainerwurst, German for “Kranj Sausage,” and käsekrainer, a variation on the Slovene recipe that includes cheese—also objected to Slovenia’s application for PGI status. Though Slovenia’s 27 previous applications were accepted with barely a hiccup, when the time came to consider this one, all three of these nations said no.

The Germans and Austrians rescinded their objections quickly when, at a meeting in Graz, Austria, in February 2013, Bogataj was able to show officials from both countries a recipe for Kranj sausage he’d found in an 1896 Slovenian cookbook. The tipping point, however, was when he relayed the story of the time Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph stopped in Kranj, en route between Vienna and Trieste, and was served home-stuffed meats. Upon tasting them, he is said to have shouted, “These are no ordinary sausages, these are Kranj sausages!”

 Although likely apocryphal, this oft-told story hit the right note with the representatives from both Austria and Germany, who accepted Bogataj’s proposal: Slovenia would exclusively use the nomenclature “Original Kranj Sausage,” while Germany and Austria would use only the Germanized version of the name, without qualifiers like “original.” “It took about 15 minutes,” Bogataj says.

 Croatia, meanwhile, was not budging. At a meeting in Zagreb a month later, the Croatian Ministry of Agriculture, its sausage consortium and its chamber of commerce formed a united front. They had heard the story of Franz Joseph. They knew about the 1896 cookbook. They were not impressed.

 As its longtime rival and far larger neighbor, Croatia has been involved in a variety of disputes with Slovenia since both countries split from the disintegrating Yugoslavia in 1991. Kranj sausage seems to be just one more opportunity for the embattled countries to grapple. Slovenia blocked Croatia from EU entry for nearly a decade before dropping its objections; Croatia became the 28th member of the EU just last year. By way of revenge, according to some, against its more developed and economically advanced northern neighbor, Croatia has staked a claim to a swath of ocean that appears to be Slovenian, despite the fact that Croatia boasts 1,246 islands and around 1,100 miles of coastline, while largely landlocked Slovenia has only 27 miles of coast.

 It takes no stretch of the imagination to understand that Croatia saw this sausage debate as another chance to stick it to its neighbor. While requests for comment from the Croatian officials involved in this case went unanswered, prominent Croatian food writer Tamara Novaković says Croatia’s response is to be expected. “Croatia and Slovenia have been going at it for years,” she says. “It is obvious that the issue of Kranjska klobasa isn’t solely a gastronomic heritage problem, but implicates rivalry on a larger scale. We fought greater wars. Why have another one over sausage? If it’s called Kranjska, it’s from Kranj. It’s Slovenian. We can name it otherwise.”

 This is not the first time nations have clashed over what to call dinner. Our EU insider recalls a particularly onerous argument over agneau de lait du Pyrénées (young Pyrenean lamb), which France wished to register a few years ago. “We had opposition from the Spanish lamb producers, who said that the Pyrenees are partly Spanish, and if the name Pyrenees were registered for lamb originating in France, it would make it difficult for Spanish lamb producers to use a reference to the Pyrenees,” he says. A compromise was reached in which France could register its name, but only in French. The geographic component, “Pyrenees,” could not be translated into other languages, and an additional sticker would specify that the meat came from France.

In 2012, Slovenia dealt with an issue similar to the French-Spanish war over lamb, when Štajersko-Prekmursko bučno olje, a pumpkin seed oil from two northern Slovenian regions, was registered. The problem was that Austria had already registered a similar pumpkin seed oil, which originated just across the border. The two products were essentially identical, with the artificial border between the two nations the only real difference. This case was likewise resolved linguistically: The geographical component of the name, in this case “Štajersko-Prekmursko,” could not be translated from the Slovene on labels sold abroad.

At the meeting in Zagreb last year, Bogataj offered Croatia a third option: Instead of immediately ceasing to sell products under the Kranj sausage name, it could have a five-year grace period, during which it would phase out the usage before stopping altogether. This settlement would have avoided leaving the decision in the hands of the European Commission, which could be good for Croatia, because if the EU does decide to protect the sausage, Croatia will have to stop sales immediately. Croatia declined, saying it would allow Brussels to make the decision. This is a rare event: The department in charge of PGIs receives an average of 90 applications to register foods per year, with 205 food products currently being considered. Less than 5 percent of applications are contested, and fewer still are sent back to Brussels for a final decision.

 What would it mean to Bogataj if Slovenia’s bid was rejected? Should he fail, he says, his faith in the system will be shaken, because he is convinced that he has presented a rock-solid case that Kranj sausage is Slovenian. There are other Slovenian dishes that he would like to see awarded PGI status, but this could well be his last crusade: “[If we lose], of course I will not go on,” he says.

For now, the fate of Kranj sausage, and Bogataj’s career, lies within a mound of paperwork in the Brussels government office known as DG Agriculture and Rural Development Unit B3. There, in the heart of the European Union, a Cold War writ small will edge one step closer to victory for either Slovenia or Croatia—in the battle of the garlic sausage.

Noah Charney is a professor of art history and a best-selling author of fiction and nonfiction. He writes for The Daily Beast, Esquire, The Guardian and other publications. He lives in Slovenia. Learn more about his work at www.noahcharney.com.

2 Responses to “The Weakest Link”

  1. cray65 Says:
    June 6th, 2014 at 2:32 am

    The adjective kranjska derives from the region of Carniola(Kranjska in Slovenian), not from the Kranj(city)

  2. anet dingemans Says:
    August 4th, 2014 at 2:33 am


    We loveSlovenian koblasa very much!!! and of course it must be made as we used too in Slovenia,I come there since 1978.Where are they fighting about,in my opinion there are much more important things going on in this world!! Two differant sausages is nice and a differant of taste is allways.I would say:what is wrong to keep them both.
    This looks like a joke is it real that they are figting over Koblasa?

    With kind regards
    Anet Dingemans

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