GRUB!: Serbian Style (Subtitle: Death by Food)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

As I mentioned last time, I recently took a few days off for a quick trip to Belgrade (in Serbia, of course). It’s perhaps not the first place you’d think to go from Baku, not least because it’s more than 3,000km away. The flight was about 10 hours long and involved an annoying amount to travel in the wrong direction - to Qatar - before I changed planes and made it to Nikola Tesla Airport. On the plus side Qatar Air gets two thumbs up for serving me a hot breakfast on two consecutive flights and having a lot of cheesey superhero movies on tap. Belgrade, though, was merely the setting, not the purpose of this trip. The real reason for the trip was to meet up with some old friends who were in the middle of a longer trip that involved a four day stop in Belgrade.

Here’s a look at part of Belgrade's Kalemegdan Fortress, which is set in a large, green park in the centre of town at the confluence of the Slava and Danube rivers.

Rob and Wes have been vacationing together for years, so I was honoured to be asked to join them. Though in a way this was simply the extension of the Dinnerus Maximus tradition that started in London in 2011 and was always intended to involve the possibility of more exotic locations. Certainly the agenda for Belgrade was highly food-centric, since Wes had already researched and booked a private food tour that promised to be six hours long. As it turns out, any previous dinners together could be viewed merely as training for the non-stop food fest that was to be Belgrade.

Wes and Rob, at the start of the food tour, still blissfully hungry and unaware of the scale of the event to come

First, though, a bit about Belgrade itself. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised on all fronts. I arrived a few hours before the guys, so I wandered a bit in the central part of town which is pleasingly pedestrian friendly, and got a local SIM card for my phone, and had a really lovely lunch at a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, and marvelled at the favourable exchange rate with the Serbian Dinar, and sat on a series of benches in the park surrounding Belgrade Fortress, all while trying to stay awake after my overnight flight. And I geeked out a bit about the Serbian language, which means you have to sit through that before I tell you about the food.

Serbian is a distinct language in itself, but part of the Slavic family (Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, etc.) and uses it’s own version of Cyrillic which has a few different characters than Russian Cyrillic. I found it very familiar and was only slightly less comfy with it than with Russian, which is to say in Serbian I’m an utter moron whereas in Russian I’m merely an idiot. The really fun thing about Serbian, though, is that is it basically the only European language that displays synchronic digraphia! (Stay with me here because this is actually cool. No really.) Digraphia means that two different alphabets are used by the language. Most often this means that one alphabet was used historically, then replaced with another ("sequential digraphia"). In Serbia though, they use two different alphabets at the same time! There’s the Cyrillic one I mentioned, and a modified Roman one too. You see signs in one, or the other, or both, and the population read and write both interchangeably. Synchronic digraphia! The Go Stay Work Play Live Phrase of the Month.

I was so taken with this concept, which I discovered while noodling around at lunch on that first afternoon, that I bought this little fridge magnet.

And here’s a street sign showing both scripts

But back to the food, er, I mean the city. Wes’s food tour was brought to us by Taste Serbia, who you should all book with right now because they were GREAT. It’s a small operation, but their website is really nice, because the two guys who run it - Djordje (pronounced “George") and Goran - are IT professionals by day (Djordje for a local ice cream company, which will become important later). In their off-hours though, both are dedicated foodies. Djordje and his wife Maia were our guides for the day. They picked us up at our apartment at 1pm and the three of us squeezed into the back seat of Maia’s car for our first stop, a tiny neighbourhood pastry shop selling traditional rolled burek pastries in a variety of flavours. Burek are a favourite breakfast food and especially popular after a night out. The place we went to is open 24 hours a day, and is apparently busiest in the hours after the bars close. Djordje ordered a small mountain of them for each of us, which was our first clue that Djordje’s notion of portion control was going to be a major challenge as the day wore on. The burek were served with mugs thick plain yogurt to drink, which is the usual accompaniment.

Filled with cheese or meat or mushrooms or greens or onion & garlic 
or cabbage or sour cherry or...

Djordje gently suggested that we not eat all of what was presented, and arranged to get the leftovers packed up for us to take away before we hit the next stop on the tour, a traditional kafana. Kafanas exist in most former Yugoslav states, though they take different forms in each. In some countries they’re strictly for coffee and alcohol but in Serbia, happily, they are all about the food. A Serbian kafana is a sort of bistro / pub / family restaurant and usually includes live performances of traditional music along with the food. Sunday lunch at a kafana is a favourite Serbian family activity and the food at our kafana was not in short supply. Witness the buffet table. There's an equal number of dishes on the far end, masked by the enormous bowl of fruit.

Here’s Djordje at the buffet, loading up a sample plate for me, and instructing Rob and Wes to copy his choices. We went at it slowly - visiting the buffet for about five different courses. Or was it seven? It was still early and yet it was already starting to become a calorie-soaked blur.

If I start getting into a blow-by-blow of all the different things we ate I’ll have to consider renaming the blog Go Eat Eat Eat Eat. Instead I'm going to concentrate on a few key Serbian treats that kept coming up again and again, the first of which is kajmak (pronounced KI-mak, to rhyme with highjack). Kajmak is a sort of butter/cream product that was described to us as “layered milk fat”. It’s used as a condiment or topping for breads but also on top of grilled meat, which Serbia has a lot of. It’s sometimes described as being similar to creme fraiche or clotted cream, but none of the kajmak I ate reminded me of that. I found it much more like a tangy whipped butter. At first I wasn’t sold, despite Djodje’s frequent imprecations of “More kajmak!”. However, by the next day’s lunch we were found ordering extra bread and kajmak so I can begin to understand the fervent Serbian devotion to it.

Here’s our first plate of food at the kafana - mostly cured meats, including some very nice dry local salami and lovely sort of ham like proscuitto. That white ball on the right that looks like a tiny scoop of ice cream is kajmak. And the tobbacco-like stuff at about 7 o'clock was a sort of dry shredded pork fat kind of thing. Oddly tasty. We called it "pork floss". Surely there's a marketing idea in there...

The other ubiquitous Serbian delicacy we kept running into was ajvar (pronouced EYE-var. To rhyme with, er…orange.) Ajvar is savoury sort relish / spread made of roasted sweet red peppers. It’s even more more-ish than kajmak, and a staple on any Serbian table. Traditionally a winter food, homemade ajvar is prepared by families in large batches in the fall and preserved in jars. It’s very labour intensive, what with all that roasting and pepper-peeling, but it's also available commercially, even in Azerbaijan, where I can get it in sweet or hot varieties at my local grocery shop. I’ve been spreading it on all kinds of things, kind of like Serbian salsa. It’s got a distinctive bright orange colour and silky texture and is sometimes even referred to as vegetarian caviar. (Even though it is clearly nothing like caviar expect in that it is a spreadable foodstuff.)

Wes and me at the “more kajmak” lunch. And almost-empty bowl of ajvar can be seen in the bottom right.

So the kafana was our introduction to a lot of traditional Serbian foods - the preserved meats, kajmak, ajvar, and a lot I didn’t mention specifically. We also had chicken soup, lamb soup, many different salads, goulash, potatoes, a few different ground grilled meats, and a nice smattering of desserts. Frankly, we were all well on our way to groaning insensibility by the time we left the kafana and headed to the next stop, where we concentrated on my favourite course: dessert!

Ambar restaurant is on a newly redeveloped strip of former industrial land along the shore of the Slava river.

Ambar has an extensive menu, but we were there to try a medley of favourite Serbian desserts. These included a Serbian version of Floating Island - a cloud of meringue set in a dish of custard, which I’ve seen on Masterchef but never tried. (Verdict: Nice, but unlikely to win out over anything with pastry or chocolate or caramel in it). We also has a very nice sort of mille feuille of sliced peach and creme patissiere and a sour cherry pie, sour cherry being a popular flavour in Serbia.

These were both very very good. Not pictured was a dish of Kokh (pronounced with that throat-clearing sound at the end). It was a piece of plain sponge cake soaked in cold milk and served sitting in a puddle of cold milk. It was not a hit. Because… ewww. Why? Why would you do that to cake? What did that cake ever do to you, Serbia??

By this point, since we were having dessert, I sensed that the end of the tour must be drawing to a close - a seriously rookie mistake. In my defense, my brain was probably not working properly due to extreme ajvar overload (Ajvarloading, perhaps? Ha!) (Ok, I'm sorry about that. Sometimes I can't help myself. It's genetic.) In any case, I was mildly alarmed when I found out we had TWO more stops to hit, including another kafana. Luckily, on the way to the next spot Djordje produced a jar of his grandfather’s homemade rakija, the traditional fruit brandy of Serbia usually made from plums, which loosened the mood somewhat.

Here’s Rob and Wes in the back seat, Rob having just sampled the rakija

The specialty of our second kafana was Serbian sač, (pronounced “saatch”) which I though I’d know all about since saj is a big deal here in Azerbaijan (I have to blog about Azerbaijani saj some time…). Serbian sač is both the physical cooking vessel and the foodstuff it produces. The sač is a large round metal dish that gets stuffed with meat and potatoes and left to roast slowly over coals for a very long time. Serbians don’t use a lot of spices in their cooking (basically it’s salt, black pepper and red pepper). However, despite (or maybe because of) this minimalist approach, the meat that comes out of a sač is beyond succulent.

This is the sač we were served - a large piece of pork that was simply sublime. It was almost sweet, and a bit sticky, having roasted for hours in it’s own piggy goodness. (You may have detected by now that Serbia is not a vegetarian wonderland.) Also, ironically, the kafana where we had this piggy goodness was housed in a former synagogue.

Luckily we were allowed to take a doggy bag of the leftover pork which was very nice for breakfast the next day. And miraculously we were still able to squeeze into the back seat of Maia’s car for the trip to our last stop - more dessert! On the way Djordje produced another round of homemade rakija, this time his uncle’s variety made from quince and after a few sips of that we found our way to a beautiful sort of taverna that jutted out into the Slava river, away from the centre of town. It was a lovely and quiet and Djordje managed to restrain himself and only ordered one type of dessert, a cooked apple served with lashings of whipped cream, along with a cup of very strong coffee served in the Greek / Turkish style with lots of gritty stuff at the bottom.

Wes and Rob waiting for more dessert.

By the time we finished up we were almost in a paralytic food coma, and it was dark, and Djordje and Maia were not just guides but friends. We drove through the darkened city in Maia’s car, laughing and talking, and marvelling at the amount and quality of food we’d enjoyed and listening to Djordje and Maia tell us not just about food but about Belgrade and Serbia and their lives and whatever happened to come up. Then the car was pulled over at a corner shop and Djordje hopped out and returned to deliver the coup-de-grace - ice cream bars. They were the ones he made in his day job at the ice cream company, the Serbian analogue to a Magnum bar. And like the trained eating machines we had become, we ate.

The whole food tour was fantastic, and turned out to be just the beginning of three days of fun and food in Belgrade. The following night we returned to Ambar restaurant (home of the sour cherry pie and the weird milk cake) and had their unlimited Ambar Special - an unending succession of small plates that once again has us on our knees after fourteen individual courses. At one point the waiter came over and asked “Shall we continue?”. When we said yes and managed two or three more courses he eventually conceded, “You are Canadian, but you eat like Serbians!”. High praise indeed. Other things happened in Belgrade too. We walked around, and did a tour of the fortress and went to the Nikola Tesla Museum and the Automobile Museum and had some local craft beer and went into a nice Orthodox Church.

But mostly we ate and talked got caught up with each other, which was really the point all along.


Kathryn said...

That looks amazing. Although my tummy hurts reading about the volume of food, the experience sounds great - and with wonderful friends, too!

Unknown said...

This is Rob commenting, the Rob in the Belgrade food story above. I would recommend Belgrade for 3 days to anyone travelling in the area. The food tour was a major hit and I hope to do more of those in future travels, hopefully with Wes and Pam, they are food maniacs. We also stayed in a lovely big Airbnb apartment that was like someone's granny's place after granny didn't need it anymore. There will be more Airbnb's in our future travels, for sure. Cheers.

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