16 May 2010

Well fed in Montenegro

For the first time in living memory, I wrote an article about travel and didn't mention the food. Extraordinary, I know, but I just ran out of space while writing about my recent walking holiday in Montenegro for The Independent. What's even more unforgivable is that I'm Serbian and was brought up on the same food, which I absolutely adore and am always banging on about how great it is.

I think one of the reasons why the cuisine didn't get a mention was that the holiday was organised on a half-board basis, which meant dinner at the same hotel every night. Much as I enjoyed the Hotel Rivijera in Petrovac, the menu did veer towards the "international" side, as if the tender digestive systems of its guests were too refined for hearty peasant food. So that meant pork chops, veal chops, steak – food that could appear anywhere. One evening they asked if we had any requests. "Cevapcici!" I chimed in, as I was pining for spicy meat rissoles. Luckily they were equally enjoyed by the English guests in the party.

Wandering through the food market at Cetinje, the former royal capital, I noticed how seasonal vegetables dominated, just as they had in the markets of Belgrade and Dubrovnik I had just visited. We make a fuss about seasonal food in Britain, because we've become so far removed from eating what's appropriate for the time of year. The reality of seasonality is that the markets in the Balkans were dominated by various types of cabbage and not a lot else. Personally, I'd rather have good-quality home-grown food than expect to eat strawberries in January, even if the diet is limited. Besides, the type of long green cabbage leaves in season at the moment are perfect for the springtime version of sarma, a mixture of pork, beef, onions and garlic wrapped up in cabbage leaves (rather like dolmades).

There was still plenty to drool over in the market, though, including stall after stall of fresh cheeses and others heaped with the Balkan version of prosciutto. They would have made a great lunch for our walk in Mount Lovcen national park. What we did have, though, was burek, a filo pastry pie filled with cheese or meat which we'd bought in Petrovac. It was our morning ritual to go to the wood-fired bakery and get two portions of burek, which were still delicious several hours later when we stopped for a picnic lunch on top of a mountain or in the midst of an olive grove.

We had one day off from walking, and that's when we finally got our only chance to eat in a restaurant. Thank God it was an excellent meal. It was warm enough to sit outside on the terrace at Cafe Mediterraneo in Petrovac and savour my octopus salad and a glass of local Vranac red wine. There were so many more dishes I knew we were missing out on, but they'll have to wait for the next time.

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