Many years ago I was working as a reporter in the Balkans, mostly in Serbia with occasional forays into neighbouring states. As we were covering a war, fine dining wasn't exactly top of the agenda, though we ate well enough and I never had to live through the seige of Sarajevo. I was sometimes envious, though, of colleagues working in Croatia. Journalists will eat almost anything if they have to but put them in Split with a restaurant serving black seafood risotto and they'll block-book the tables.
The Serbs have a saying: "nema tice do prasice". The literal translation is "no bird like sow" but it means, roughly, "the only good chicken is a small pig", underlining the Serbs' fondness for pork and macho dismissal of anything remotely girly or vegetarian (except sauerkraut) in the food line. Don't get me wrong, I like meat, but the other basic food groups were often hard to come by outside the capital Belgrade.
A small pig and a chicken
Granted, they were subject to international sanctions at the time, but I once asked for an omelette for supper in Serb-held Pale in Bosnia and the waitress looked at me as though I'd lost my mind. "Eggs? Eggs are for breakfast," she said. In Montenegro we stopped to eat at a restaurant bristling with ancient guns, antlers and mounted animal heads. Avoiding the accusing eye of the dead bear on the wall we asked what was on the menu. "Meat," said the large and intimidating proprietress flatly, the implication being take it or leave it. We took it. The only accompaniment apart from bread was a tiny but delicious dish of ajvar, a red pepper and aubergine relish, of which more in a moment.
One local speciality I remember vividly though are ćevapčići, small skinless sausages or patties, spicy with garlic and black pepper, which I found completely addictive. So recently I asked my old colleague Zoran Kusovac how to make them. Several hours later, after numerous questions on my part and long and very strict instructions from Zoran, I had recipes for both ćevapčići and ajvar, pronounced (and I hope I've got this right or I'll never hear the end of it) cheh-vap-chee-chee and eye-var.
Ćevapčići (makes about 42 patties)
You need meat with a fair percentage of fat or the ćevapčići will be dry. Though traditionally made entirely from beef, you can use pork, beef and/or lamb in any combination. Zoran's preference is for 50% beef and 30%-50% lamb. If you'd like the patties to be spicier, use the larger amounts of garlic and black pepper. Paprika and/or cayenne are, I'm informed, absolutely forbidden although I have seen a similar recipe from elsewhere that includes both paprika and chopped mint.
500g minced beef
450g minced lamb
2 shallots, very finely minced (I bashed them in a mortar)
3 to 6 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/2 to 1 tspn black pepper
1 tspn salt
1 tspn baking powder
3 tbsp water
Mix all the ingredients except the water very thoroughly, add the water (carbonated is supposed to be best) and mix again. Place in a non-reactive dish and pat down to about 2 cm thick all over.
Cover with cling film and put in the fridge for 24 hours. Zoran insists it should be left outside the fridge to mature for 6-24 hours but it's been very hot and humid here and I wasn't chancing it. Using a sharp knife, cut the mixture into sections about 5 cm long and 1.5 cm wide. Remove each one and roll it into a sausage. Don't overwork them or they'll be too dense.
Cook on an oiled charcoal barbecue (ideally) until done to your liking, turning gently to ensure they're browned all over.
Eat with pitta bread, chopped onion and ajvar. The other traditional accompaniment is kajmak, a hard fermented sour cream that looks like a softish cheese, but that's almost impossible to source outside the Balkans.
Ajvar (makes 1 medium bowl)
Making ajvar is a bit time-consuming and messy but it's fun to do and in the Balkans is a social activity - invite your friends over for barbecued ćevapčići and get them to muck in. Zoran says you should use pointy red peppers, not the fat Italian or Spanish type, but the only pointy ones I could get were very thin-fleshed so in the end I used a mixture of the two.
2 large aubergines
6 red peppers (if using the fat type)
1 clove of garlic, crushed
Juice of 1 lemon
120 ml olive oil
Salt and pepper
Heat a barbecue or oven to about 475F/240C/Gas Mark 9. Put the veg straight onto the barbecue grill and cook for 12-15 minutes until blackened and blistered.
Put them in a large bowl, cover with cling film and leave for 10 minutes to steam. Then peel off the blackened skins and remove and discard the seeds and stems.
Put them in a food processor (or chop them in a bowl if you'd prefer your ajvar to be chunkier), add the garlic and lemon juice then drizzle in the oil while the machine is turning or while you keep stirring. Season to taste with salt and pepper. This will keep in the fridge, covered, for a week.