In March 2009, the Slovenian government submitted an application to the European Commission requesting that the Krainer sausage – kranjska klobasa in Slovenian – be given protected status. The accolade, already enjoyed by such culinary gems as Gruyère cheese, Scotch whisky and Cornish pasties, would mean that only Krainer sausages produced in Slovenia could be sold by that name.
This news was hard to swallow for Austria and Germany, undisputed kings of the sausage world, which complained to the EC that “Krainer” is a generic name for various pork products in both their countries. Into this combustible mixture jumped Croatia, which argued that the sausage was just as popular south of the Slovenian border.
The mood quickly turned hostile. “We’re not going to allow anyone to deny us the Krainer,” declared Niki Berlakovich, the Austrian Minister of Agriculture. Josef Bitzinger of the Vienna Chamber of Commerce agreed, insisting that “to rename this beloved speciality is simply impossible.” In a remarkable act of cross-departmental cooperation, the Ministry of Agriculture and Chamber of Commerce joined forces with the Austrian Patent Office to sue Slovenia.
Undaunted, the Slovenians hit back. “All the arguments are on our side,” asserted a defiant Franc Bogovic, Slovenian Minister for Agriculture and Environment. And after nearly six years of bureaucratic back-and-forth, the EC eventually granted the kranjska klobasa protected status – albeit with the proviso that other countries could continue to use the term “Krainer”.
It’s easy to remain aloof from the whole drama, and not least because I’m a vegetarian and find descriptions of the sausage’s “exquisite juiciness” faintly nauseating. But the histrionic character of the saga is in fact typical of food politics, one of the emerging fronts in the global battle for soft power. Consider other food fights currently taking place, whether it’s Lebanon versus Israel in the debate over the creation of hummus, Australia against New Zealand over the invention of pavlova, or the three-way battle between Chile, Bolivia and Peru over the origin of the potato. These disputes often reach surreal proportions – such as when New Zealand, in a calorie-laden rebuke to Australia, baked a pavlova big enough to feed ten thousand people, or when South Korea launched kimchi into space in an attempt to assert its sovereignty of the pickled vegetable dish over Japan.
But underneath such theatrics, food politics is serious business. Italy’s food and drink products, arguably its most popular exports, bring in nearly 40 billion euros a year. In 2016, the country capitalised on its revered food culture with the ‘World Wide Week of Italian Cuisine’, a gastrodiplomacy spectacle with events in over 100 countries. Beyond Europe, China is similarly exploiting the global popularity of its cuisine to boost its reputation, strengthen international ties and present a friendlier image of the authoritarian state to the world.
Ironically, the one thing that often gets sidelined in food politics is the food itself. Cuisine is rarely celebrated merely for what it is, but more often for what it represents. Revealingly, in all the various arguments about the Krainer sausage, no one argued that it was special because it was tasty; far more important was that it was theirs. It was but a meaty pawn in the world of political showboating.
With countries increasingly looking to wield power through their cultural rather than political presence, food politics is likely to remain a hot topic for the foreseeable future. Gastronomic spats in particular provide a relatively safe space in which countries can flex their diplomatic muscles – though things can still turn nasty, as happened when the UK and Iceland went to war over cod 50 years ago (seriously). So while the Krainer sausage saga may have gone cold, other culinary tensions are surely simmering away throughout Europe, just waiting to cook up the next political showdown.