Thursday, 17 October 2013

Balkan food 101

So it's back to the daily grind as I try to pull myself out from the bottomless pit of unemployment. But I’ll put it off a little longer to reminisce; the withdrawal symptoms are too much to handle. A couple of weeks ago I returned from a month of backpacking around Europe with two friends, Liam and Paul. We returned to the UK a bit worse for ware and all a bit fatter, but what a month! We started our journey with no real plans; in the past I've found it works better this way. My only aim was to eat a lot of Balkan food.

Ljubljana gets musical

So with a Ryan Air (please don't hate me) cabin sized backpack and a dream to taste my way round the Balkans, we set off. Along the way, the other two tried their hand at busking, and while sometimes I joined in (it's surprising how generous people are in the 'Second World'), I often went off in search for the local culinary delights.

Balkan food 101

  1. Vegetarians and gluten intolerants- stay away from the Balkans! I'm kidding, but heed my warning. I quickly became sick of the all-meat and gluten based diet, but found that veggie food was hard to come by. The free walking tour guide pointed out Sarajevo's only vegetarian restaurant, and noted that business was so bad that they only received bookings in advance, as keeping the restaurant wasn't cost effective. A week later it shut down! Bulgaria has more choice for vegetarians, but in other places you might be stuck with a plate of simply cooked veg.


    2. Every country will stake their claim to their national dish, Börek, or Burek. It is common to come across shops called Buregdêgdzinica, which are dedicated solely to this specific pastry. At these fine establishments you pay by weight, so you never feel cheated if someone else has been given considerably larger slice than you. It also means you could try every flavour in one sitting without emptying your pockets or gorging yourself silly. Börek is a wonderful pastry, one of those 'national' foods which is acutally eaten by the locals on a weekly basis. It's suspiciously similar to the Spanakopita I made in my previous post, but even better. It's often rolled into a spiral shape, sliced and served with natural yoghurt. At its best should be very crispy and browned on the outside, with a thickness to the pastry between that of a sheet of phyllo and a crêpe. Common fillings include cheese, minced meat, potato, spinach and potato, and garlic and cream. Strangely enough, the best I tried was at a bakery chain in Zagreb, in the underground mall near the train station (just in case you ever venture there!).

Ljubljana's answer to a dairy maid

 3. In Ljubljana, Slovenia, they like to do things the traditional way. But without all the work. And their unpasturised, raw milk vending machines should serve as a template for the rest of the world to combat obesity. In fact, this dispenser has one up on the cow, not only milking it, but chilling it and providing the neccessary cups or bottles. Again, price is exactly proportional to volume. Who needs a canful of HFCS when these are around?

4. If you go to Bulgaria, try tikvenik and let me know how it is! I didn't often go out of my way for food, but I'd heard about this 'popular' pumpkin and cinnamon phyllo pie which proved impossible to track down. It must have been very popular.

5. Balkans is a dessert-lovers heaven. But even I found that many cakes were just that bit too-sickly sweet and syrupy.

So I was delighted to come back to the UK and eat one of my favourite light meals, a Salade Niçoise. Don't skip the capers or anchovies; together with the sweetness of the tomatoes (it's important to get good quality tomatoes), they make the dish sing!

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