I think the foods of all the southern areas of Eastern Europe are related, from the similarity in climate, which affects not only what grows well, but how foods were traditionally preserved and stored, and from the shared history of the late medieval Turkish conquest and subsequent centuries of Ottoman rule. The names, though, can differ from country to country and each region has many of its own specialities as well as its own twists on the shared dishes.
This trip to the Republic of Macedonia, at the end of April, was timed nicely for the start of the outdoor eating season, when in Skopje the householders have moved out to their gardens and the restaurants and coffeehouses have flowed out to patios and streetsides. Though I was only there for three evenings or two full days, my memory of it, in between book-related events and tours around interesting parts of the city and surrounding countryside, is of a lot of eating, more than seems possible to have fitted into such a short visit!
From a long, leisurely post-breakfast coffee with the night-desk clerk from the Hotel Aleksandar (the one on Vostanicka) under the larches in their garden, the morning I accidentally set my alarm on Istanbul time and got up an hour before I needed to, to several evenings out with Dejan and company, it’s clear that Macedonians make eating a time to relax and enjoy oneself. It’s not something to be rushed through, to get on to the next phase of the day. Lunch is late, closer to two than noon, and supper is likewise later in the evening, around seven or eight.
Dejan Trajkoski and Nikola Madeshovski took David Chariandy and me to a number of different restaurants serving traditional Macedonian fare, with a varying array of other guests, who were writers, publishers, and academics living in Skopje. Each time, rather than ordering individual meals, we had a large array of different dishes to share. I didn’t get the names of many of them, but there were salads of tomato and cucumber covered with a grated white cheese, the sauces pindjur and ajvar, based on red peppers (which we used to be able to buy at the grocery store here, but the Superstore decided we Maritimes didn’t need such exotic foodstuffs and stopped stocking them a couple of years ago — traditionally eaten with bread, they make a good sauce for homemade pizza), flatbread, grilled “beaten” cheese, which doesn’t melt, several other white sheep cheeses, platters of roasted vegetables, salty kebabs sprinkled with hot pepper flakes, a soured cream, the paprika-flavoured baked bean dish tavche gravche (тавче гравче), roasted mushrooms, curried chicken and mushrooms (okay, I admit that one is probably not native to Balkan cuisine, but it was very good), and more tomato and cucumber dishes. I also tried an excellent lentil soup on one occasion, had Macedonian-style yoghurt which was the best ‘Trinkjoghurt’ I’ve ever had, and was introduced to a bagel-like (in that it is annular), sesame-seed-coated bread called gyevrek (ѓеврек), a variant of the Turkish simik spread throughout the former Ottoman empire. I’m going to have a go at making gyevrek someday soon.
There are only a couple of types of Macedonian beer, according to Dejan, and on this trip I didn’t sample any; the large bottles of zlaten dav (златен дав) or Golden Oak looked like a daunting quantity for someone running on hardly any sleep. My notebook records that it is a “non fizzy wild” — or possibly that is meant to be “non-fizzy mild” lager, according to Dejan. I’m all in favour of non-fizzy ale and beer, though I lean more to the dark side. However, I tried several Macedonian wines. On my last trip I had been really impressed with the wines produced in Macedonia. They seem very rich, nicely complex in flavour. The Spouse and I tend to rate wines as either complex and interesting, or thin. Any Macedonian ones I’ve tried have definitely fallen in the rich and complex category. I didn’t rediscover the particular excellent red I bought at random in a grocery store for my hosts last time, though I remember it was said to be made from a grape variety indigenous to the region, but I had a very interesting red wine regardless. It was a Vranec (in English; it’s spelt бранец so I think would be pronounced more like vranets– with the ts a bit plosive as in tsar) named T’ga za jug, a wine I was told (I think — it was late, I was exhausted, and my notes are a bit sketchy) had been named by contemporary Macedonian poet Bogomil Gjazel after a poem by a famous nineteenth-century poet of the region, Konstantin Miladinov. The name means “Longing for the south”. (The poem was written while Miladinov was in exile in Russia.) We also had a white wine, a Riesling from the company Alexandria, which was excellent as well. No, we weren’t drinking wine all evening. That was another occasion entirely. (I mean, the Riesling was another occasion. There was no drinking-all-evening occasion; the Macedonian evening of dining out does not involve copious drinking.) But to continue the alcoholic theme for another sentence, I also tried rakia for the first time. Also very nice!
Although nearly every meal I ate in Macedonia was served outside, on the second evening five of us ate at the Old City House restaurant, the architecture of which shows what a traditional Macedonian house would have been like. There was a courtyard, but we were in a room of dark wooden beams and white plaster. Elizabeta drew my attention to the ceilings, which she said were decorated with wooden intarsia work in a traditional style. There were many antique oil lamps and other items decorating the rooms as well.
The final evening was a gathering of many of the people David and I had spent the preceding couple of days with, Dejan, Nikola, Dr. Elizabeta Seleva, Dr. Aleksandar Prokopiev and his wife, and a number of others. It was a long, leisurely meal with much conversation in several different languages. (Actually, at one lunch in the Old City I ended up speaking English, German, French, and my few words of Macedonian in short succession, and there was Albanian being spoken among those at the table as well.) Conversations ranged over poetry, what to feed pet rabbits, the current political situation in Macedonia, the National Post and their “nobody noticed” proclamation about the Macedonian president’s visit to Canada (rather embarrassing, when at the same time David and I were national news over there), and a complicated effort, with drawings, to work out what the Macedonian word for dandelion was. I seem to have omitted to write it down. (An earlier effort to figure out what the English for some peculiar-looking beast with large mouse-ears — my interlocutor was a poet, not an artist — concluded it was a musk-ox. Probably.) I came away from it all with the feeling that this is what a gathering of thinking people should be like — and also, the conclusion that I really like Macedonian cheese. And wine. And curried mushrooms.
And of course, ajvar and pindjur, which, you will notice once I finally get that long-promised next Torrie book written, Wren and Torrie develop a taste for while Wren is apprenticed to Rookfeather in Callipepla.
In the next post, I’ll finally be getting some of my many photos of the Matka Gorge up.