Rick Stein’s TV travelogue, from Venice to Istanbul, might have shone a culinary spotlight on the Balkans last summer but much of the region’s cuisine is still little known in Britain. Indeed, until last month the closest I’d come to Macedonian food was reading that avjar, a red pepper spread imported from Macedonia, had become a cult hit in my local supermarket.
While I can’t claim to have done an in-depth taste test around this vast region I can certainly vouch for the foodie credentials of Macedonia, having just returned from a food-centred tour of this small, land-locked country with Intrepid Travel.
One of a series of Real Food Adventures now offered by the small group specialists, this one was designed to showcase the ‘real’ food cooked by Macedonian people at home – simple dips and breads, hearty stews and herbal rakija (a kind of fruit brandy) that take their influence from across Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Led by an impressively well-informed guide, Jane, the 10-day trip (the official itinerary also covers Montenegro) started in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, before taking us around the country’s scenic lakes and pine-forested mountain villages.
In Skopje we ate delicious pastries for breakfast, met locals selling herbs and other produce they had brought down from allotments out of the back of trucks and got to try the local take on avjar (made from bell peppers, aubergines and chilli it was a deep orange colour) as well as sudzuk (beef sausage with a slightly garnet hue thanks to the inclusion of red pepper) and salty, holey cheeses. On a short excursion from the city, we also got to try 15-year-old rakiya beside the stillness of the Treska River gorge.
Macedonia has not been embraced by mass tourism so the winding mountain roads are blissfully quiet and hotels make way for homestays in remote alpine villages. Hike between those villages and you will almost certainly meet shepherds offering you freshly churned cheeses, or even a whole lamb for you to take away.
One of the highlights of the tour was our stay in a little pink house on stilts by Mavrovo Lake in Leunovo. So friendly was the welcome by owner Danny (whose father built the house 70 years ago, and who greeted us in blue overalls, fresh from chopping firewood) and his wife Tina that we felt like long-lost relatives, on a family visit.
Within minutes Tina made us mountain tea (thyme, forest mint, dandelion flowers and chamomile) on an ancient stove in the couple’s tiny kitchen, a space only separated from the timber-clad dining room by a shelf of trinkets. If cuckoo clocks were house-sized, this is how they might look.
Later that evening, Tina treated us to a hearty home-cooked dinner. Tearing off chunks of a freshly baked three-flour loaf we dunked it into a salty cheese curd dip before helping ourselves to sizzling stuffed green peppers, scraping the caramelised bits off the bottom of the dish. And everyone wanted seconds of Tina’s special recipe cinnamon, raisin, cocoa and cranberry cake.
The winters in this part of Macedonia are long and cold so breakfasts are not taken lightly. The following morning Tina fattened us up for a day of exploring with mekici (deep-fried doughnuts) and pancakes with homemade plum jam as well as eggs, breads and more cheese.
Hearty food, we discovered, is the order of the day in Macedonia. And pies are almost a national obsession, with each area claiming its own take on the region’s famous, flaky pita pies. My favourite was made by women in the mountain village of Jance, within the Mavrovo national park around two hours’ drive west of Skopje.
It was a process we got to watch first-hand. First the pastry is stretched out over a huge work surface so it’s translucent. Then it is wound up into a giant spiral, with cheese and blackberry jam creating little pockets of sticky sweetness – but also a delicious savoury hit when cooked.
In the same village we visited Hotel Tutto, an almost Tibetan-looking stone and timber building tucked into pine-forested hillside above the Radika river. Constructed along sustainable principles the hotel is also a proponent of Slow Food, with founder Tefik Tefikoska a real advocate for the movement in Macedonia.
Here we learnt to cook a polenta-like dish while drinking forest berry juice and snacking on pickled mushrooms foraged just 50m from the kitchen. And the jars of marmalades, black honey and pine honey served at breakfast were all, unsurprisingly, hyper-local.
This super-local approach to food was something we experienced across Macedonia. Between here and Dihovo, just under three hours’ drive south of Jance, we stopped at Ohrid, a lakeside town on the border with Albania that also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its Byzantine churches and little terraced houses decorated with hanging baskets and windowboxes bursting with bright colours, it’s a scenic as well as foodie spot.
Here, we caught a little wooden boat to one of Jane’s carefully selected family-run spots, sitting on a wooden jetty watching fishing boats row past and enjoying a typical Macedonian breakfast of light fish stew made with trout and carp fresh from the lake. It went down surprisingly well with shots of homemade rakija, warming us up for the day ahead.
Only a few hours later, at Villa Dihovo in Dihovo, we enjoyed a fresh soup made with greens such as nettles, celery, wild garlic and herbs so specific to the area that they have no English translations. The villa’s owners catch river crabs, make their own rakija in a tiny backyard distillery and use honey made by Macko, a beekeeper just 100 yards down the road (a producer we later met, with Jane’s help, and helped make his honey).
It isn’t just fish, meat, grains and vegetables that Macedonia’s rivers, lakes and mountainsides provide fertile territory for, however. Grapes are also a success story here and Macedonia’s primary wine district, Tikves, is a must-visit. Around two hours’ drive northeast of Dihovo, we explored this area with the help of local wine expert Ivana Simjanovska.
First stop was the beautifully manicured Popova Kula wine estate, with its picturesque views of vineyards rolling down to the river. With a plate of meats, cheese and nuts to accompany the wine, we enjoyed glasses of salmon pink stanushina rosé, dark, rich, ruby-red vranec and light and refreshing stanushina white. It was an ideal spot to watch the sunset – and let all those pies settle in a hazy, slightly boozy bliss.
This, we discovered, was the pattern of the trip – local food and drink, cooked with care the traditional way and eaten with friends or family against one photogenic backdrop after another. As patterns go, it’s one I’d definitely like to repeat.
Intrepid Travel’s 10-day Real Food Adventure around Macedonia and Montenegro costs from £1,260 per person, including accommodation, most meals and 13 excursions to local markets, farms, cooking classes, lakes and national parks but not flights (intrepidtravel.com).
Written by Alex Crossley, June 2016
Photographs by Joanna Yee and Alex Crossley
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