LUNJEVICA, Serbia — What do President Barack Obama, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and orbital skydiver Felix Baumgartner have in common?
All have been named in the past three years as the "Ballsiest Man in the World" by the promoters of an international culinary festival held in rural Serbia — one which trumpets testicles as a delicacy.
This year's Ballsiest Man — or perhaps this time, Woman — has yet to be decided. But top contenders appear to be Edward Snowden and Angela Merkel.
"She has very strong balls, very iron balls," Ljubomir Erovic, the festival's founder, said of the German chancellor, who has been a key figure in enforcing unpopular austerity measures on European Union member states.
Hyperbolic titles aside, the competition at the World Testicle Cooking Championship is really about the food.
Last weekend, about a dozen teams vied for their recipe to be named the best. A small but spirited crowd, numbering in the hundreds, slurped cold beer and “rakija,” a homemade fruit brandy, as chefs and their helpers spiced gonads stewing in cauldrons.
Erovic founded the colorful competition, now in its 10th year, as a fun way for Serbia to grab headlines and to help bolster the image of war-torn former Yugoslavia.
"Now Serbia is popular in the world and without wars — we are popular with our balls," he told GlobalPost. "You know, the Swiss have cheese, Scots have scotch but we Serbians have balls."
Teams from Denmark and Germany and some foreign judges lend this tiny event its international credentials. The contest is an intimate affair, held in a village field just a mile outside the town of Gornji Milanovac, 70 miles south of the capital Belgrade.
Most of those who gather hail from the immediate area in the geographic heart of Serbia. With no outside sponsorship, little promotion and no commercial facilities except for a beer tent, the event still manages to attract a niche following of curious spectators.
Judges taste the myriad of goulash recipes in which bull, goat, sheep and pig testicles have been slow-cooked for hours. Contest judge Stein Brauten — a 60-year-old retired army officer from Lillehammer, Norway — said it takes skill to make testicles appetizing for the international palate.
"I'm looking for taste and the mix of spices and what you can actually develop this into," he said. "How can you actually present this on an international table — that's what I am after."
Last weekend, teams erected tents to shield themselves from the late summer sun as their closely guarded recipes simmered in open cauldrons, fired by propane and wood.
Cornelius Vermeer, a tourist from Amsterdam, said his wife told him he was crazy to travel to Serbia just for a chance to sample stewed balls. The ruddy-nosed 60-year-old Dutchman could barely contain his excitement as he waited for the chefs to serve their creations.
"I've tried this one — I don't know what it's called, it's very good," he said, holding out a half-finished bowl of stewed beef he’d been given to tide him over while he waited for the main dish. "But now I want to taste the balls! That's what we come for — for the balls!"
The menu doesn’t disappoint. Within minutes, steaming bowls of goulash — a fatty stew spiced with paprika, onion and a thick gravy — appear with sliced pork and cow testicles, known colloquially here as "white kidney." Vermeer said he was very satisfied with the taste.
Many of the attendees of the festival were older men like Vermeer, whose wife opted to stay at home. Indeed, it appeared few females made the pilgrimage to the celebration of male parts.
One of the few exceptions was 28-year-old Megan Hogarth, from Hobart, Australia. After much trepidation, the smell of the German team's goulash won her over.
"I came here thinking that I probably should [try the testicles] but wasn't sure if I'd have the guts when it came down to it," she said. "I watched a lot of people eat them and everybody seemed to be okay after eating them."
A first-time visitor to the Balkans, Hogarth said she was impressed with the carnival atmosphere and the lively hospitality.
"It's one of the most bizarre things I have ever been to," she said. "I think there are a lot festivals all around the world that are much bigger and much more better known that aren't half as interesting as this."
Festival promoters like to trumpet the so-called aphrodisiac properties of eating testicles.
"A long time ago in the French castles it was a favored food because it was an aphrodisiac, really," Erovic said. "But now there is too much fast food around the world and we have forgotten this kind of food."
Homemade plum brandy, known as "rakija," kept spirits high among contestants and spectators at the World Testicle Cooking Championship in Lunjevica, Serbia. (Aleksandra Radosavljević/GlobalPost)
As alluring as that may sound, it’s nonsense, says competition judge Vanja Krstic, a professor of veterinary sciences at the University of Belgrade. Testosterone and other hormones are eliminated in the cooking process, making it unlikely the flesh brings any special benefit.
But eating testicles is a humane choice of meat, the veterinarian pointed out. Animals raised for eating are routinely castrated at a young age so they gain weight faster. It's a simple, relatively painless procedure after which the animals live on for many months — giving testicle recipes the rare distinction of being meat dishes that aren’t fatal to animals.
As dusk fell on the grassy field, the cooking contest winners were announced. Copious amounts of wine, beer and “rakija” were still flowing — much to the disappointment of a nearby Red Cross blood donation station, which struggled to find sober donors.
The 2013 cooking honor of “best cooked balls” went to 63-year-old Zoltan Levaj and his 12-year-old assistant, Marko Markovic, both of whom hail from a nearby village. "It means a lot, really a lot," Levaj said after winning the trophy, a wood-carved phallus. "But it's more about flavor and hospitality, not so much about competition."
There was no cash prize. Instead the elder teammate was honored with a special cocktail invented by visiting mixologist Stefan Candby of Copenhagen, Denmark: a concoction of Clamato juice, Danish akvavit liquor, lime, Tabasco and Worcester sauce — and, of course, a pair of seared balls.
“I call it, Caesar's Flaming Balls!” cried Candby, to ecstatic applause.