06 May 2012

Macedonian Home Cooking

We came for the food.  In 2003, a Swiss organization called Pronatura chose Brajčino as the first eco-village in Macedonia, aiding it to create a tourism industry that could help preserve the village's natural beauty and rural lifestyle.  The help included trail markers, information panels, updates to homes that wanted to offer "western quality" accommodation.  The people of Brajčino, three old women to be precise, took it upon themselves to create a small sub-industry.  They developed set menus and prices and began to offer tourists home-cooked Macedonian meals.  Almost a decade later, this has become one of the main tourist draws.  "A lot of Italians go there," someone had remarked in Ohrid.  "I don't know why."  We knew exactly why.  Brajčino has become an unlikely foodie destination.
Upon arrival, we were sadly informed that one old women no longer does it, one had rented out her house for the season and the third had a broken leg.  (When an ancient, whiskered woman lifted her black hemline and tapped her cane against a bandaged, swollen knee later that day, we deduced that she must have been apologetic women #3).  "But you can eat in my home one night and in the restaurant the other," our host Divna said.  It felt like a let-down, but when we saw the wooden table on Divna's front lawn set for a welcome snack, we couldn't imagine a more perfect place to eat.  It ceased to matter what exactly that food experience would be.  Divna's chickens ran around, the bigger of her two roosters was on a fornicatory rampage.
Over the next two days, two breakfasts and two dinners, we experienced truly divine locavore eating.  The potatoes were bright yellow, the egg yolks were flame orange, both so packed with vitamins and nutrients that the color and flavor were exploding with vibrancy.  Homemade sheep cheeses differed in textures and flavors, crushed walnuts replaced roasted peanuts when the mood struck, trout from the river (which was stocked from nearby Lake Prespa) replaced the normally offered beef.  "There used to be eight cows, now there are only four.  Young people don't like raising them," our host had told us.  Though, I'm sure veal would have popped up had I not requested meatless dining.
There was, actually, a little meat in Merlin's first dinner.  We were each given a clay pot with four small stuffed red peppers.  My polneti piperki overflowed with spiced rice and his had some ground beef mixed in.  Macedonian food is almost always verrrry slowly-cooked in clay dishes, which is why restaurant equivalents just don't cut it in most cases.  Rice plays a large role in the cuisine, both because of Turkish influences and the fact that they grow a lot of rice.  In the peppers, and mixed into our vegetable soup starter, the grains were flavorful and toothsome - with the appearance of brown rice, but the taste of black, wild rice.
At our dinner in the restaurant, which had been opened just for us and felt just as cozy as any home, we received a crash course in Macedonian cuisine.  Everything we'd jotted down as something to look out for on our travels, appeared before us: tavče gravče (butter beans slow cooked in an earthenware dish - considered the national dish), Macedonian pie (a savory pastry of leeks, spinach and herbs), ajvar and pindzur (a quintessentially Macedonian red pepper paste and its fresher, less cooked down salsa-like sibling).  Ajvar is something we've been trying wherever and whenever we can.  Every cook has their way of doing it.  It is made in enormous batches during Autumn, cooked for hours and hours in jars and eaten at every meal throughout the year.  "I make too much ajvar!" the restaurant chef, Milka, said laughing.  Her annual batch is made from 100 kilos of red pepper, from her own garden and those of other village women.
Ajvar is one of those things that Macedonians insist you must try homemade.  These sort of declarations are usually frustrating, like "try to get yourself invited to a wedding!"  On it.  It's one of the reasons places like Brajčino and homestays in general are so special.  You actually can eat a homecooked meal in a foreign country, you just have to explore your options.  Here's some ajvar served as part of one of Divna's excellent breakfasts.  Alongside is a dry, cornbread with specks of salty sheep's cheese scattered within in like chocolate chips and a sprinkling of sesame seeds on top.  Before eating, we poured kefir over the cake and dabbed on some blueberry jam as directed.
Yogurt was not the only homemade drink on the menu.  We drank white wine, liker and rakija all made by Divna and her husband.  Rakija is your usual privately distilled liquor, clear, strong.  Liker, as far as we can tell, is the girlier version.  Infused with fruit and with added sugar, it is a more pleasant sip.  Adult juice.  These two spirits are usually served with pride and a personal touch.  Some have mint leaves inside or are yellower in color, from extra wheat added during fermentation.  Divna's rakija was particularly strong and her liker, plum.
We felt at home at Divna's, but there was something freeing about having our experience in Milka's restaurant.  Homestays are now a big part of our traveling experience, we try to set one up in each country if we can.  Still, we worry about crossing the line between paying guests and house invaders.  No one has ever made us feel this way, especially not Divna, but it feels much less intrusive taking up someone's time with questions when you aren't also pulling them away from their own dinner, family and/or favorite television show.  Milka's restaurant was decked out in full traditional kitsch, but her low, neat ponytail, athletic shoes and zip-up vest over a v-neck t-shirt harkened back to her 18 years in Sweden.  Like almost everyone else who grew up in Brajčino, she left during young adulthood.  It was wonderful to talk to her about life before and life now, about her recipes, the sources of her ingredients and her family.
In the morning, we'd hear Divna setting up the breakfast table, beneath the grape arbor.  The vines had recently been pruned, so a drop of sap would drip onto our scalps or into our cups of coffee now and then.  The old women of the town would come and visit her as she ate and would, later, recognize us in town.  One, who rose no higher than Merlin's bellybutton and who we'd seen weeding a large garden the day before, spoke rapidly to us as we waited for the minibus.  Afterward, we decided that she must have been trying to figure out if we were the great grandchildren of one of her friends who'd moved to America.  Milka's daughters are in Sweden and Australia now.  The Aussie one has two boys and is pregnant again.  Milka is hoping for a girl.  That way, she explained, she can pass down all of her secret recipes.

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