Through one of those curious twists of life I ended up visiting Belgrade, Serbia for three months this year, over, as it happens, the hottest summer seen there for over a century.
The Balkans war was 20 years ago and for a visitor, barely any signs remain – Belgrade as a city is cosmopolitan, relaxed, and a great, cost effective place for a holiday. Two rivers run through it, the Danube and the Sava, and you can swim off islands in the middle: well organised spots with bars, and beaches. It’s great because you can cycle too, all the way around them. Rollerblading is popular too.
But for me, what I’m interested in, as ever, is the food. I suffered through the language classes, wading through their important lessons of “Are you married?” “Are you a woman?” “How old are your children?” “Where does your husband work?” and instead concentrated on learning, “How much are your tomatoes?” “Where are the chick peas?”
Yes, I am a vegan and it might seem I came to the wrong place; Serbia is a meat-hungry nation. Every day my bus passes a poster featuring a thrice life-size, flayed sheep, head and popping eyeballs and all, stretched on a pole advertising barbecue cuts, and when I order salads, I am usually told that tomatoes are more expensive than beef – “have a burger!” they say. The good thing is, Belgraders love fruit and vegetables too. Markets here feature stall after stall of cheap, plentiful and automatically organic produce – it’s never been grown any other way. They do import things, and you can get most familiar ingredients, but after accidentally paying nearly four quid for an avocado, I decide to stick with what is grown nearby – and there’s plenty of that. It’s usually picked that morning and is all beautifully arranged: rows of fluffy peaches upturned like baby’s bottoms, black grapes, still with a deep bloom and leaves attached, and heaps of peppers, different varieties arranged just so. The stall holders tut and dart out from their perches to repair any disarray you might rudely cause in searching for the very best specimens.
I can’t imagine posters here urging locals towards their five a day. There’s no need. What they don’t eat fresh, they preserve, pickle, jam and even distill as a matter of course. I saw not only bright copper jam pans in the shops adjoining the market, but also miniature stills, just right for perching on the balcony, along with barrels that hold several heads of cabbage, tightly packed in salt and weighted with stone, producing, over a couple of months, a kind of sauerkraut used in a variety of winter dishes.
In fact, this plenitude leaves stall holders laughing at me as I venture to the market and ask for my usual, suddenly meagre seeming ingredients. As the granny in front staggers off under twelve kilos of cucumbers, I ask for one. “One kilo?” “No, one cucumber.” “That’s three dinars (about 2 pence)” they reply – “actually, just take it. What else? A pepper? One? Here you are, take that too.”
The market I like to go to also has two stalls with herbal teas – mixes for coughs and kidneys, as well as everyday mint and chamomile – I like wild mint which has blossoms and furry leaves. Everybody I know had better like wild mint too, as I’m so entranced I have sent several packages home.
The season begins with raspberries, plums, blackberries, peaches, cherries, sour cherries , and expensive early sweetcorn, and now, as I’m leaving, goes into squash, aubergine, grapes, beetroot, and the last of the sweetcorn, expensive again – a spectrum of autumn colours.
As the temperature all summer has hovered around 40 degrees, it’s been far too antisocial to do more with the oven than use it as an extra work surface. I’m beginning to appreciate the reasoning behind the curiosity I heard of before coming – the “Summer Kitchen” – literally a kitchen built in its own separate structure, well away from the main house. I’m also not inclined to do as I’m urged locals without this convenience do (getting up at five to cook all the day’s meals before the heat begins). For most of the time we’ve lived on salads, cycling to the market along the river for a pinch of extra virtuosity.
Dishes that can be made back at home can be made here with the rich and fresh ingredients. Blackberries, marinated in oil and vinegar, salt and pepper with a scatter of pecans, goat’s cheese for non vegans nested it in rocket– the blackberries give an almost dirty back-of-the-throat richness against the peppery rocket and the pecans add a crisp texture; visually, it looks marvellous, like a walk in the forest.
Similarly peaches, so ripe they have that slippery smooth heaviness, almost like the canned kind (which doesn’t sound good but really is!) are amazing in a salad, and can stand a bit more contrast and bite – rocket again (I tried the local spinach and as it’s grown in soil, it’s too bitter to eat raw), crescents of peach, goat’s cheese or almonds, fine cubes of onion, sweetcorn, slivers of tomato, and oil and vinegar dressing.
The tomatoes here are exceptional, and come in several unfamiliar varieties – especially delicious is a huge, dense kind made for sauces, as it has few seeds and is mostly flesh. I’m a bit squeamish in preparing this, as it’s so slippery and fleshy that when hot from the sun and spurting juices everywhere, it’s more horror film than home cooking. But this is very good in a more Italian salad, alongside cubes of cucumber, day-old bread, basil, capers, olives and the ubiquitous oil and vinegar it’s delicious and surprisingly filling.
Garlic, oil and vinegar are transformative for most vegetables, and finally something I prepare traditionally. A side dish served everywhere is potatoes and blitvah – what we finally decide is chard – just boiled potatoes and steamed chard mixed together, with oil, vinegar and generous amounts of garlic poured over. I find it addictive and can wolf huge amounts. Also roast peppers, served in their juices with the same dressing – amazing.
Now it’s less hot I’m using the oven, and relishing roasting squash, purple onion, and tomato in olive oil, to serve on top of quinoa and sunflower seeds, with the roasting juices dribbled over, or, more simply, walnuts minced and made into a pesto, whizzed up with olive oil and rocket, a little garlic and pepper and a heap of pasta.
I’m a little nervous to go home and back to Tesco’s bagged salads after such an idyllic summer . I may have to change my flight just one more time, as I hear that a different variety of plums is coming up, and the river in autumn is worth waiting for…
‘Vegan cooking in Belgrade, Serbia’ was written by Genevieve Jones