A sojourn around former Yugoslavia – beautiful though it is – is not really the best trip to take for the herbivores among us. The national dishes of each Eastern European country rely heavily on fleisch, and my main sustenance on that trip came from cheese and bread, or bread and cheese.
Now, I’m a fan of bread and cheese. As a veggie, a nice rustic doorstop cheese sarnie is a quick and reliable staple – Salad Cream please, no Mayo. Maybe a few choices slices of salad vegetable if I feel so inclined. After all, what’s a life without whimsy? But five weeks of being bound up like a dried out cement mixer took the edge off somewhat, and I was aching for something that would tickle the palate.
From the near-Mediterranean splendour of Split in Croatia, I decided to bod on up to Mostar in Bosnia, having once read about it in a book. It was on the way to Sarajevo and had a really really old bridge that the Croats had bombed four-fifths of a flying fuck out of during the war. Good enough for me.
What stunned me about Mostar, first and foremost, was its beauty. I had a very firm image of Bosnia in my mind that mainly came from ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ – crumbling Soviet tower blocks, an eternal winter, and craggy, scarified old men in dirty vests – a dog end eternally affixed to tar-stained lips.
Safe to say I was wrong. The Ottoman Empire had a huge effect on this part of Europe, and I was greeted by a spicy, heady exoticism of Bazaars and cobble-streets, Backgammon in the sun, the whiff of smoke and strong coffee inducing the giddiness of exploration.
The coffee is brought back up to boiling point again. Apparently it adds depth and flavor. Like it needed more.
Once the 40-degree heat had worn me down sufficiently, I decided to take a break and found a café. It was a wonderful garden-type affair, set in the side of a hillock on the banks of the river Neretva, right next to the now rebuilt Stari Most. From here I could watch the local oiled Adonis’ ransack tourists for money, before jumping off the 79ft structure into the – remarkably shallow – river below.
The waiter – in between playing tune after tune of ear-rape turbo-folk – popped on over and took my order. In need of some pepping up I ordered a coffee and a glass of iced water. Enquiring about snacks, I was told that I should really try Burek – kind of like a sausage roll, with the sausage replaced by melted cheese. Great. Some form of carbs and cheese. Quelle fucking surprise.
I waited for my food feeling rather content. Small finch-like birds played chicken with the ash I was flicking into the ashtray, and the sickly-sweet smell of overripe figs from the trees above me invaded my senses – in a nice way. I tried to catch the eye of a stunning Balkan beauty sat one table over, barefoot and sporting an artfully ripped Sonic Youth tee. Labret piercing glinting in the sunlight as she talked. My reverie was broken with the arrival of my munch.
The coffee was served in the traditional way, grounds floating in the tar-black sludge, housed and brewed in a roughly beaten copper pot. An important distinction to make between Bosnian Coffee (or ‘Bosanska Kahva’) and the more commonly known Turkish coffee is in the preparation. A small amount of water is saved aside once boiling, and then the coffee and water are added to the pot. Once mixed, the remaining water is added and the coffee is brought back up to boiling point again. Apparently it adds depth and flavor. Like it needed more.
I could bullshit at length about how it had the deep lush hue of a summer cornfield – but it looked like it came from Greggs.
I sipped my coffee as is customary, with a brown sugar cube snuggled under my tongue. As it dissolved, it spiked the black diesel liquid with a syrupy sweetness that gave quite the perky kick. Chasing it with sips of iced water had the effect of revitalising my insides. The hot-sweet and bitter coffee and the cool and refreshing water were the devil and god raging inside me. Well, raging inside my guts.
Revived is an understatement – there is weaker Cocaine to be found in SU bars the country over than Bosnian Coffee – I decided to move onto my Burek. About six inches long, two inches wide, greasy and sprinkled with sesame seeds, it wasn’t much to look at. I could bullshit at length about how it had the deep lush hue of a summer cornfield – but it looked like it came from Greggs.
I tentatively chomped down on one end, Sirene (Balkan Goats cheese) oozed into my mouth. And it was everything you wanted in a foodstuff. The pastry was perfect – moist but not too greasy, flaky and crisp on the outside, chewy towards the center. The cheese was salty – the consistency somewhere in between melted cheddar and Feta. Not stringy, but not crumbly either. It had a proper sour twang to it. Nice, if you like that kind of thing.
And as I sat there, breathing deeply the fig-scented air and watching the world pass, Gitane after Gauloises after Camel (fags were so cheap I started a lucky dip process), the coffee starting to supercharge my veins and my mouth a-hum with the stodgy, savoury tones of Burek, I thought to myself that I had never felt quite so contented.
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