I must admit, I had low food expectations of the Balkans. Courtesy of “The Balkan Grill”, a favorite university hang during my student days in Sydney, I knew there would be big portions of grilled meat. But beyond that I guess I had just assumed Balkan cuisine would be not so great: plain ingredients, and simple cooking.
Which just goes to show it is sometimes possible to be 100% right and also 100% wrong at the same time. Because the food I ate in the Balkans was exactly what I expected – plain and simple. But also spectacularly good.
The highlight of which was 48 hours of pure gluttony that ranks right up there in my “all-time amazing foodie experiences”.
However, while you slip into some comfortable elastic-waist pants (fair warning: you may gain weight just from reading this blog), some context to set the scene.
You see, at first blush, the food we found in the Balkans was, in a word, abysmal. The places we visited may have been culturally and visually magnificent (see my previous posts on Dubrovnik and Montenegro), but the accompanying menus tended to be awful.
This was best illustrated by a bowl of ($30) “artisan pasta” we ate on one of our first evenings in Dubrovnik, seated at a pleasant little outdoor restaurant on a hidden side-street of the Old Town. The dish turned out to be little more than warmed noodles with a jar of flavorless red sauce tipped over it.
Even that was nothing compared to the horrific “food tourists want to eat” that was on offer just about everywhere in the region. Seriously, I cannot understand why anyone would travel all the way to the Balkans and then choose to eat (truly bad) fish and chips, or hamburgers, or pizzas.
Fortunately, I whined about this pathetic state of affairs to Demir, the manager of the guest house where we were staying. He agreed with me that food served up to tourists in the Balkans is mostly overpriced crap designed simply to feed the hordes that descend like a swarm of ravenous flies over the summer-time.
But Demir also insisted that people in the Balkans are food obsessed, and would never dream of settling for a bad meal. “We don’t have much money, so eating and drinking is our way of life”, he said. And then, rather unexpectedly, he volunteered to drive us the following day from Dubrovnik (in Croatia) to Mostar (in Bosnia Herzegovina, a place we had been planning to visit anyway). “Along the way I will show you what real Balkan food is,” he promised.
Now that’s my idea of a road trip.
We set off early and about 30 minutes north from Dubrovnik the coastal road wound past a wide bay. Demir slowed the car and mentioned that the “best oysters in Europe” were cultivated in its waters. This seemed like a needlessly boastful brag, so I felt obliged to stop and judge for myself.
At a small fishing port a few colorful boats were tied up at the dock, and a crew of hardy-looking women were busy sifting their way through a huge mound of oysters (there were no men at all – evidently oyster farming is women’s work in Croatia).
One of the women sauntered over, and she and Demir spoke briefly in the local dialect. My only contribution was to indicate that I wished to sample at least a dozen, possibly two, of the oysters. Both Demir and the woman raised an eyebrow. Not just because it was still breakfast time, but also because once the woman reached into the water and pulled up a bucket of fresh (or to be super-accurate, still alive) oysters, I saw what she and Demir already knew: those were some seriously big fucking oysters.
Still, I was committed. So the woman took out a rusty knife, and expertly began shucking them one by one, setting them down on a bare concrete slab. Then she chopped a fresh lemon into halves, gave the oysters a quick spritz, and stepped back. That was the invitation for us to step forward, and to unceremoniously begin slurping them down.
What can I say? The oysters were so fresh they seemed almost buttery, and their taste was a lot like stuffing the essence of the ocean down my throat. I quickly descended into a series of semi-orgasmic oohs and aahs, until Demir abruptly called a halt after the first dozen. “Take it easy, we have plenty more eating to do today”, he said.
[Day 1, Breakfast: Oysters. Cost: $3. Not each, the entire lot].
We continued on our way, passing through a series of cold-war style check-points until a sign told me we had left Croatia and entered Bosnia-Herzegovina. Just over the border we stopped to visit an excellent Roman ruin, its superb mosaic floors remarkably intact.
But Demir was on a mission, and the ruins were just a time-filler. “I am taking you to one of the best local restaurants for lunch. It is owned by my friend, very popular, no tourists,” he said. He also rang ahead, so the moment we sat down at the table his mate came out to greet us, poured drinks, and plonked a large silver platter down. It was a mound of still-steaming frog legs. They were very fat – almost like mini-chicken drumsticks – and had been gently sautéed in oil, garlic and sage.
I had only eaten Kermit a few times before, and had never much liked it. So I reluctantly picked one of the legs up. Apparently, this was a regional specialty, and I didn’t want to be rude.
But, as I tentatively bit in, I experienced a taste revelation that was nothing short of religious. It was incredible, each little leggie succulent, tender, and sweet. I couldn’t hold myself back, and before I knew it I had devoured the whole plate, sucked the bones clean, and then used bread to mop up the sauce.
It was so good I decided to order a second plate (as you do), only to be summarily denied. “We collect the frogs to order in the nearby marshlands,” our host told me. “That is why Demir called ahead. If you want more, you have to come back tonight. And if you do, that will also give me enough time to prepare you another specialty: swamp eels.”
He didn’t have to ask twice. “Farm-to-table” may be all the rage in fine dining circles these days, but I wasn’t going to turn down the chance to try “swamp-to-table” cuisine.
[Day 1, Lunch: Frog legs, foraged and cooked to order. Cost: $7 for a big plate].
The rest of that day passed in a food-induced stupor. In Mostar, the site of some of the most vicious fighting in the Bosnian civil war, we strolled what is now a colorful tourist market by the riverside, and snacked on filo pastry bourek and strong coffee.
Later, down the road, we walked the ruins of an abandoned medieval town, where old ladies sold us newspaper cones filled with cherries, hand-picked that very morning. They were sweet, juicy and almost earthy in flavor: a completely different taste experience to the supermarket cherries I am used to.
In any case, by the time we got to dinner (back at the place where we had eaten lunch) I was quite full. I even thought of cancelling, but, as you may recall, I had already made a dinner date with an eel. More to the point, the eel had made a similar date with me. “We found a good one in the swamp three hours ago”, the owner said as we entered.
The eel had been cooking ever since, cut into fat hunks as thick as my wrist, skewered on wood, and slow roasted over open coals. Every few minutes the owner would turn the skewers, so that the skin was black and scorched, but not at all burned. It was like a work of art, and the low heat applied over a long time rendered the eel meat soft, tender and flavorful, but not at all eely (if that is even a word).
That was not all. It seems that while foraging in the swamp, the owner had also managed to fill a bucket with river prawns. Lightly cooked they became translucent bite-size nuggets, eaten shell, head, legs and all.
Our host also produced a platter of flame grilled squid, ink oozing into little puddles on the plate (these fresh from the sea, not three miles away). And to round things off there were assorted starters, fresh-baked bread, roast vegetables, a super delicious rice pilaf, and lots of local booze.
In fact, there was so much excellent food to stuff my face with I completely forgot all about the second helping of frog legs. Damn.
[Day 1, Dinner: Eel and other assorted swamp stuff. Cost: $15 a head].
A couple of days later, as I sat down for breakfast at a café near the guest house, Demir pulled up a chair and joined me. He said that if I had the time there were still a few things I needed to eat to complete my Balkan food education. I agreed immediately.
Demir smiled, and said we should start right away, with breakfast. He signaled the café owner, and a few minutes later I was presented with an omelet, chopped vegetables, and a thimble of strong espresso. Oh, and a shot of home-made cherry brandy.
I must have looked confused, because Demir explained that at almost every bar or café in Dubrovnik, there will be a bottle or two of the owner’s home-brew under the counter. Not for sale to tourists, but for sharing between the locals, on an “I drink in your place, you drink in mine” basis.
Before I knew it, the owner of the café (guess what, also a friend of Demir’s) joined us. We raised our glasses, toasted, and then downed the shots. The brandy was super-strong, but also sweet and smooth and didn’t burn at all. It was a lot like drinking candy.
Somehow, in between mouthfuls of the omelet and sips of the coffee, another three shots disappeared into each of us. This meant the bottle of brandy was soon empty. And which meant another café owner suddenly appeared with a new bottle of his own (this one was wild honey flavored).
Things got hazy after that. All I know is that I was completely smashed before 9am. “You are becoming a Balkan!” Demir laughed, patting me on the back as I slunk off back to bed.
[Day 2, Breakfast: Brandy. Cost: omelet and coffee, $6; unlimited local hooch, free].
At noon I resurfaced, still feeling decidedly groggy from breakfast. Demir, however, seemed totally fine and ready for our next adventure, which was to drive to Serbia for lunch. Apparently, one of the finest spots for “lamb under the bell” was just over the border, and he was anxious to get there before the day’s supply sold out.
At the border we were stopped by a surly guard. He signaled for us to pull into a side lane, demanded my passport, and began stalking around the car glaring at me angrily. Until Demir popped his head out of the window and explained we were not drug smugglers, but rather just two guys nipping across the border for a late lamb lunch. At which news the policeman immediately relaxed: of course, that made perfect sense! “Bring me back some,” he said cheerily, stamping my passport and waving us on.
Twenty minutes later we were seated at a rustic outdoor table, alongside a nondescript shack by the side of a rural road. Although something good must have been happening there, because every one of the twenty or so table was packed – couples, office workers, families, groups of friends – and all locals.
Demir said that the only dish on the menu was the region’s most famous: lamb, placed under a heavy metal bell along with potatoes and seasoning, and then slow cooked for hours over an open flame.
A waitress came over to take our order. Given that there was only one dish on offer I said I was not exactly sure what I was meant to be ordering. “How much lamb you want!” was her amused reply, “normal is 1kg for two people, but you can have as much as you want.”
So we settled into our 2kg platter of lamb (yes, I know, a bit excessive, but the waitress had smiled at me like a proud mother when I ordered). And anyway, it was really, really good. The technique of cooking under the bell had the effect of conducting low heat evenly, at the same time creating a mini vacuum. The result was melt-in-the-mouth tender meat, every morsel delicious. Even the bones had become soft, and ridiculously flavorful to gnaw on.
After we had wiped our chins and plates clean, there was still a goodly amount of lamb left. I asked the owner if we could get it to go, and she wrapped it in aluminum foil. Then, once back at the border crossing, I looked for our surly guard and handed him the package of leftover lamb. He broke into a broad smile, shook my hand, and said nice things about Australians. Then he waved us on, this time not even bothering to ask for my passport.
[Day 2, Lunch: 2kg of lamb under the bell. Cost: $30, including for the border guard].
For my final meal in Croatia, Demir had a treat in store: a few of his mates would be coming round, and yet another of his restaurant-owning friends was going to prepare us a regional specialty of salt-baked fish.
At around 7pm, I was invited into the restaurant’s kitchen. Two glistening whole fish, purchased from a local fisherman earlier that afternoon, were presented on a wooden board. I nodded my approval and the chef, a giant of man, proceeded to delicately mix a big bowl of beaten egg whites with 3 kilo of salt, and then expertly pack it around each fish. He then put them into a hot oven, and said they would take about an hour to cook.
I joined Demir and his friends at an outdoor table to wait. The homemade brandy was already flowing, and in the center of the table was a mound of kaymak, soft white cheese (similar to clotted cream) that is eaten everywhere in the Balkans. Although this particular kaymak was courtesy of Demir’s mum. “She makes it fresh in her kitchen every morning, and I swear it is the best kaymak you will ever eat,” he said.
This claim prompted an immediate heated argument, because it seems that every other guy there had a mum who also made the best kaymak in the known universe. Suffice it to say, lots more brandy got consumed.
After a while the chef brought out a large platter of pasta. He had made the noodles by hand that afternoon, and was serving them tossed simply in egg, oil and parmesan cheese, topped with lashings of fresh-shaved truffle. The aroma was extraordinary, and the taste even better. All of Dubrovnik’s past pasta wrongs were instantly set right.
Finally, it was time for the main event. The entire kitchen staff paraded out the salt-baked fish, and with much pomp and ceremony the chef cracked the crust, de-boned the fish, and plated out portions for each of us. There was no garnish, no accompaniment – just the most delicate, pure-tasting fish I’ve ever eaten, all kept moist and (remarkably) unsalty by the thick salt crust.
As I hoed in, I was feeling pretty chuffed. There I was, at an outdoor table, in the Old Town of Dubrovnik, on a hot summer night, with a group of local guys, eating amazing food. Somehow, I had stumbled into a Balkan foodie heaven.
I think Demir sensed what I was thinking, because he turned to me and said: “Now we are friends. And these guys are my friends, so they are your friends too. And this is how we like to eat. I told you, Balkans love food, and the food here is the best in the world.”
[Day 2, Dinner: Home-made kaymak, truffle pasta, salt-baked fish. Cost: I paid for the fish, $25. Everything else, given I was now one of the lads, gratis…]
So that was my Balkan food extravaganza, thanks to some seriously food-crazed locals. An off-the charts eating experience which reminded me of what I already know: that great food doesn’t need to be fancy, expensive, or served up on fine china in a ritzy restaurant. Oftentimes, the best food is the simple stuff, cooked simply, by people who love and appreciate what they are doing.
[Note: all photos were taken live, in between mouthfuls].