From fish stew for breakfast to snails for dinner and lashings of history and spectacular scenery in between, Laura Millar gets more than just the essence of the Balkan state during an unforgettable culinary tour
Welcome to Disneyland!’ says Jané Josifovski, the genial Macedonian guide who is taking me, and several other intrepid foodies, on a ten-day tasting adventure around his homeland, as we wander through the capital, Skopje, on our way to lunch. A landlocked nation with a population of only two million, and bordered by Albania, Kosovo, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, this very green and pleasant land used to be part of the former Yugoslavia. Today, the multiple influences of its neighbours – and invaders – over the centuries have resulted in a simple but rich cuisine, blending Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavours.
Modern Macedonia is still a largely agricultural nation, with a bountiful supply of fruit and vegetables, great wine-growing territories and a tradition of hearty home-cooking.
But Jané’s ‘Disneyland’ quip is apt: as we wander towards the ancient, maze-like stone streets of Skopje’s Old Bazaar, and its array of food markets and restaurants, we pass a succession of gigantic, towering statues of some of Macedonia’s historic figures, including Alexander the Great, and former ruler King Philip II.
These, Jané explains somewhat disapprovingly, are part of an expensive government initiative to try and give the city a more classical appeal, in the wake of an earthquake which destroyed around 80 per cent of the city in 1963. Combined with the shiny, white, Caesar’s Palace-like structures lining the river Vardar, which turn out to be newly-built museums or government buildings, in places Skopje also bears a certain resemblance to, well, Las Vegas.
Deep in the heart of the Bazaar, however, surrounded by the needle-like minarets of the mosques (30 per cent of the country is Muslim) and the curved brick domes of old, Turkish-style hamams, it’s easy to forget you are in the 21st century. Alleyways are thronged with busy cafes and eating places, and as Jané steers us towards a large trestle table, the enticing smell of smoky, chargrilled meats and freshly baked, herby rolls wafts over the street.
Waiters rush to bring out dishes groaning with food: shopska salata, a mixture of fresh, chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion and olives, covered in grated, salty feta cheese (resembling a classic Greek salad and just as delicious); urnebes, a tangy dip made with sheep’s cheese and paprika; piping hot, terracotta dishes of tavče gravče – a hearty, delicious white bean stew baked with onions, paprika and dried chillies; bowls of ajvar, the ubiquitous relish made from roasted red peppers, more paprika, and garlic; and, finally, the centrepiece, a huge platter of grilled meat, including beef, pork ribs, lamb and chicken.
Meals here are very much about sharing; everyone digs in, and, lubricated by goblets of the local robust red, vranac, or an aperitif of the Macedonian firewater, rakija, loud and lively conversation ensues. As an introduction to the country, it’s an eye opener; flavours are subtle but insistent, ingredients are fresh and tasty.
On the outskirts of the Bazaar is the buzzing Green Market, where locals and visitors forage for the best produce. Stalls are piled high with glossy pink strawberries; plump, shiny olives; long, curving, mild peppers; bags of pine nuts and sunflower seeds; sacks of loose leaf black tea, and more. One twinkly-eyed stallholder encourages me to dispense my own (generous) measure of paprika, while another cuts me dozens of slivers of different types of local cheese to try, from mild to sharp.
This tour, however, is not just about food; it’s a chance to experience some incredibly stunning scenery. Macedonia may lack a coastline, but its geography features around 50 lakes, many of which are suitable for boating or kayaking, and three protected National Park areas, full of gorges and mountains, as well as local wildlife. We spend an afternoon at Matka Canyon, just 20 minutes outside Skopje, bisected by the river Treska. It’s home to several medieval monasteries, as well as dozens of caves. At Vrelo Cave, we climb down a succession of slippery steps into the dank gloom. This limestone cave has been around for over 2,000 years, and its underground chambers are lined with dripping stalagmites and stalactites; the biggest one sticks right down in the middle, and is known as the Pine Cone. It’s also home to flocks of bats, which squeak unnervingly in the cave roof several metres above you. And by the shores of Lake Mavrovo, in the lushly forested Mavrovo National Park, you can go on a variety of hikes (snow carpets the surrounding mountains in winter, meaning you can also ski). Jané explains the iconic, half-submerged Church of St Nicolas, which sticks up above the surface. It was originally covered by floodwater in the 1950s but dams now control the water levels, which means half of it is permanently on display.
One of the prettiest places we visit, however, is the UNESCO heritage town of Ohrid, in the country’s southwest corner. Sitting on the shores of a lake of the same name, Europe’s deepest (and possibly oldest), it features a smattering of beautiful, Byzantine churches, and boasts a Roman amphitheatre, which dates from 200BC. Sitting by the waterfront at a café reached by boat one morning, the sun sparkling on the lake’s clear bluey-green surface, terracotta-topped houses overlooking it, it’s easy to think myself in Italy, or Croatia. That is, until Jané recommends I try the local fish stew for breakfast. I love a bouillabaisse as much as the next person, but at 9am? I needn’t have worried; the waiter deposits a delicious light, lemony broth, featuring freshly caught lake trout, in front of me, which I inhale.
Travelling with a local guide means you see things, and meet people, most regular visitors wouldn’t. Over the course of the week, we are guests in two homestays, where our hosts prepare typical meals for us to share. In one house, in the small mountain village of Leunovo, matriarch Tina offers a vast dish of polneti piperki: baked peppers stuffed with rice, meat and vegetables, with sides, salads, bread and yogurt and ajvar for dipping. The next morning her husband Dani is flipping palacinki, similar to French-style crêpes, to be devoured with Tina’s home-made plum jam, while she deep fries mekici, doughnut-like fritters. At another homestay, husband and wife Georgina and Goran serve up delicious baked snails, cooked with garlic and wine, as well as a hearty beef stew with mushrooms.
One of the most interesting regions – especially if you’re an oenophile – is the terroirs of Tikveš, the centre of Macedonian wine production. A fertile plain of around 2,000 square kilometres, it’s home to wineries such as Popova Kula (www.popovakula.com.mk), which offers tastings and tours. Grape varieties to look out for are the aforementioned red vranac, merlot and stanusina, while whites include sauvignon blanc. After a very merry afternoon sampling, well, most of these, we toast Jané in thanks for showing us round his beautiful country. Disneyland may have Mickey, but it’s got nothing on Macedonia. n
• Intrepid Travel’s new 10-day Real Food Adventure to Macedonia and Montenegro starts from £1,260 per person, including accommodation, selected meals, ground transport and the services of a local guide. There are three departures this summer and five planned for 2017. Book at Intrepidtravel.com; 0808 274 5111. Wizz Air (wizzair.com) operates five weekly flights to Skopje (daily except for Mondays and Fridays) from London Luton with fares starting from £18.49 (one-way, including all taxes and non-optional charges).