The difference between having an annual Balkan holiday, and permanently living almost anywhere in The Balkans, is the difference between sitting in a posh restaurant, or going food shopping for yourself. Living in a Western European country, where almost anything is available in the market at all times, or trolling around a hometown Balkan supermarket – whilst desperately trying to buy the correct ingredients – can be maddening.
But one thing is for sure – despite what the celebrity chef on the local TV channel might have to say – that most of the ingredients available anywhere in the Balkans, are disappointingly much the same. Cooking, on the other hand, does vary a bit, but not as much as the pundits would have you believe, and although most national dishes have different names, many hark back to the Otterman Empire, and 500 years of Turkish occupation.
The Balkans have always been fairly austere, and this has determined the average diet, and of course the lifestyle which it supports. Although the main factor is tradition, food in the Balkans is about wives or Grandmothers, who are determined to maintain traditional cooking standards.
That is why every dish one eats, seems to be fairly similar to the last time, and any variation in quality or presentation will receive a scowl – usually from some ancient lady in a black dress – or even a knowing look, from a patronizing dinner guest. The Balkans doesn’t seem to like gastronomic change or variety, meaning that restaurants and homes tend to serve up the same fare, and try to maintain the same standards.
Communism stymied many of the cooking skills in Bulgaria and Romania, which wasn’t helped much by central food planning – factory ships collecting fish from around the world, meat freezing factories. Russian processed tinned fish and meat, cooperative farming, and regional agricultural plans, all helped to provide a glut of certain foods, and a dearth of many others. So, a citizens food choice during communism was a frugal affair, and with high days and holidays occasionally helped along by Father Frost, most Balkan nations remained Christian, except in name.
Greece, on the other hand had no such restrictions; other than poverty or the will of the people to grow their own vegetables and fresh meat, and of course Greece had the sea. Today, it is the fresh fish – if expensive these days – that attracts the visitors and holidaymakers, to this friendly and hospitable nation, and to most of those countries to be found in the Aegean and the Adriatic. So……………
Whatever I might have said which may sound a little critical about Balkan food, it is meant to amuse more than detract, because Balkan food is unquestionably the healthiest food in Europe. With a surfeit of olive oil, cheap and easily available herbs and spices, white brine cheese – feta in Greece or sirene in Bulgaria, but much the same all over the Balkans – kaskaval yellow cheese, wonderful yoghurt, and some spectacular smoked meats and sausages, the Balkans generally have a lot to offer by way of home grown, and interesting produced foods.
But, let’s get back to our problem. As foreigners, many of us are used to a varied diet. That means the odd Indian curry, Chinese food – world famous take out food – and of course gourmet food from France, Italy, Spain and most recently, Denmark.
Although it is hard to compare Balkan food with top French cooking, if you have a simpler taste and enjoy a fish diet, most of the Balkans, and all the little countries along the Adriatic should keep you gastronomically content for years to come.
By Charlie Loftus