Serbiaon a Plate

The landlocked country of Serbia bursts with flavours that attracts people from far and wide. Sonia Nazareth offers a peek into this rich country’s rich cuisine...

Salad accompanies a seafood platter

A snowballing interest in epicurean travel has worked in Serbia’s favour. This country, that’s long been known for a rich blend of Turkish, Mediterranean, Austrian and Hungarian influences, continues to serve up a cuisine that’s distinctive, hearty and uniquely its own. Capital city Belgrade, like most capital cities, offers all permutations of world cuisine, that make the most of superlative local ingredients. But new-fangled or old-fashioned, in whatever direction you wave your spoon, you’re never too far from a meal that’s as rich, as its portions are generous.

Decadent treats

Breakfast is my first initiation into a society that precedes society’s current guilt at excess. Morning staples frequently include burek, a pastry filled with cheese, minced meat or spinach. As ubiquitous is kajmak. This relative of clotted cream — basically cheese made with unpasteurised milk — is had with bread, sausage, eggs or whatever takes your fancy. Plum, Serbia’s national fruit, also makes its presence felt, in the jam, in a molasses-like syrup called pekmez and in the fruitcakes.

I follow my nose around Belgrade, keenly aware of the enormous role that food plays in daily life. In the Savamala district at the Danube riverfront, innovative dining establishments are the order of the day. Faro, with its savvy interior design, a stage for jazz music and waterfront views, underscores the respect that Belgrade has for fresh, local ingredients. Seeing as we’re by the Danube, fish is a staple. Smoked tuna slices are entrée. Sea bass fillet, the main. Meat, the high priest of the Serbian food pyramid, is obviously available in abundance. Think smoked duck breast carpaccio, followed by slow-roasted lamb.

But despite what you’ve been told about meat dominating the food pyramid here (and indeed it does — from grills to stews), there’s really no shortage of sumptuous vegetarian fare. Risotto and forest mushrooms served with black truffle, for instance, loom prominently on the Faro menu. There’s even a vegan course, for those so inclined. Salad is a quintessential part of every meal. Here — where the produce is fresh, everything tastes the way it should: the carrot-like carrot, the apple-like apple, the celery-like celery.

A meal in contrasts

Like Belgrade itself, the dining establishments are a study in contrasts. If you’re after the whimsically traditional, edible theatre unfolds in the cafes that punctuate Skadarlija or the old bohemian quarter. Order traditional mezze, and you’ll travel your taste buds with ajvar — a roasted red pepper relish, proja — cornbread, soft white cheese, and an abundance of cured meat. Punjene paprika, or stuffed bell peppers is another welcome mat to life in these parts. Had grilled, baked or fried, the pepper can be filled with a mix of meat and rice in tomato sauce. During orthodox fasts, you can find this popular dish made in its vegan avatar, with walnuts and mushrooms, for instance.

Another staple feature is sarma or sauerkraut rolls — ground meat and rice rolled into cabbage. Each season has its own staples. In winter for instance, prebranac, or baked beans abundant with garlic, onion and pepper, receive elevated status. If you find the yoghurt on the table thinner than you’re used to, know it’s only to balance the heavy dishes and strong flavours. To dine like a local, you’ll linger over your platter. The camaraderie convened is as savoured as the food itself.

Fruity flavours

Here, too, I am initiated into the pleasures of the national drink of Serbia, rakija, a kind of fruit brandy, available in apricot, pear, honey, with plum reigning supreme. This spirit may appear innocuous but is hugely potent with the alcohol content ranging between 30% and 40%. Be warned, however, that the more spirits you knock back, the more you’ll engage with the band of musicans who arrive to entertain the diners, with traditional music and even a spot of dance.

The next morning, we travel an hour by car from Belgrade to Novi Sad. Plazma (the ubiquitous neutral-tasting cookies) accompanies any road trip. An essential halt en route is frequently a winery, for viticulture in Serbia goes back a thousand years. The town of Sremski Karlovci has maintained its reputation of producing star-worthy wines through the centuries. Here, the Zivanovic Winery with its 300-year-old wine cellar, is our stop. Beekeeping is also a legacy here. We’re taken via a series of artefacts and subsequently cellars, through the working of the hives, and the making of the wine.

Finally, on community-style tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths that conventionally distinguish the kafana (something akin to a tavern — at which grills, and pastries are available in town), we sample an assortment of brandy, mead and signature wines. A speciality of this region is the dessert wine — bermet. Created with the addition of 27 different additives, such as dried fig, carob, nutmeg and vanilla, it is as pleasing now as when it was served on the Titanic and at the Palaces of Vienna.

Recreating more of the geography and history of the area, is the lunch that follows at Aqua Doria in Novi Sad. Seated in the shadow of the Petrovaradin Fortress, this traditional restaurant offers food as rustic as its country-styled interiors. Tucking into corba — a spicy hot pot peppered with river fish let’s me feel like I’m tasting the Danube in each bite. While in Novi Sad, be sure to also dine at a salasi, or local village estate. These spacious homes offer a peek into traditional living. Roasted meats, vegetables and salads arrive in breathless assault. Musicans accompany the feasting, inducing us to linger.

Fresh produce abounds

Standing firm against the globalised and mass-produced, are the Green Markets that dot Belgrade. The city has more than 30, with Zeleni Venac being one of the oldest. Locals vote with their feet for the abundance of fresh produce — avocado, mango, strawberries and coconut, dairy products like kajmak or goat’s cheese.

Belgrade affords many food-related experiences that stand out. I potter into Hotel Moskva, a haiku of pointy turrets and whimsical flourishes, for the snit, a light cake made of sour cherries, pineapples and almonds. I’m urged to take a peep at the Novak Café & Restaurant, managed by the parents of the tennis player. The lamb chops are as coveted as is a peek at the trophy cups and tennis memorabilia. But the dinner that really ends up being greater than the sum of its parts, is at Lorenzo and Kakalamba.

The place has the kind of interiors that push boundaries on the familiar. Think tables filled with green apples, wall panels made from stuffed toys. Through a piece of glass in the flooring, you’ll have an insight into the kitchen where the food is being prepared. Offered with the same breathless excitement is a menu split between Italian and South Serbian. If you’d like a defining cheese plate from either space, it’s possible. Goat or gorgonzola? And the closer I look at both the ambience and the food, the more I see an image of Serbia, retaining its love for superb ingredients and traditions, but not closed to innovation and global influence. It is this ability to straddle both past and present, that makes any food hajj in Serbia a worthy endeavour.

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