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From a fish-stew breakfast to fruit brandy, Laura Miller enjoys a culinary odyssey through the Balkan state of Macedonia...
'The secret is to pace yourself!’ laughs Jané Josifovski, the genial local guide who is taking me, and a small group, on a foodie tour of Macedonia. Our first stop is the capital, Skopje, home to the wonderful Old Bazaar. In the ancient warren of streets, lined with its mosques’ needle-like minarets – about 30 per cent of the country is Muslim – and the domes of old hammams, it’s easy to forget you’re in the 21st century.
As Jané steers us through alleyways thronged with busy cafes and restaurants, the enticing aroma of smoky, chargrilled meats and herby rolls, perfumes the air. We take our seats at a long trestle table already lined with locals, and the waiters bring out dish, after dish, after dish. There’s shopska salata, a mixture of chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion and olives covered in grated, salty feta cheese; urnebes, a tangy dip made with sheep’s cheese and paprika; tavče gravče – a delicious white-bean stew baked with onions, paprika and dried chillies; and a huge platter of grilled beef, pork ribs, lamb and chicken.
Landlocked Macedonia is little-known to British visitors, but its affordability and stability are making it an attractive tourist proposition. It’s a beautiful country of mountains, rivers, lakes and waterfalls, bordered by Albania, Kosovo, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria. Its cuisine blends Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavours. Macedonia offers a bountiful supply of fruit and veg, great wine-growing territories, and a tradition of good, hearty home-cooking. After lunch, we stroll through the Green Market, where chefs and housewives jostle for haggling space. Stalls are piled high with pink strawberries; plump, shiny olives; long, curving, mild peppers; and bags of pine nuts.
One twinkly-eyed stallholder cuts me dozens of slivers of different types of local cheese to try. We spend the next few days travelling around the country and encountering locals who are passionate about their regional ingredients. In the west of Macedonia is the picturesque hillside village of Janche, which sits within the breathtaking, wild beauty of Mavrovo National Park, overlooking the winding Radika river. Among its huddle of red-roofed, stone buildings is the Hotel Tutto, whose affable owner, Tefik ‘Tutto’ Tefikoski, is a member of the Slow Food Macedonia society. Tutto sets about preparing lunch, frying mushrooms – which he has helped forage – in oil and vinegar with garlic and peppers over the open fire. Already bubbling in a huge iron pot is kachamak, a dish made of cornflour and potato. We devour it with the peppery mushrooms and cooling sheep’s curds.
We watch dessert, a pita, or pastry pie, being prepared. The pastry is rolled out so finely it’s almost see-through. It’s layered, then coiled, like a snake, before being baked, with blackberries, under a metal dome covered in hot coals and ashes. After wolfing it down, I’m offered a shot of Tutto’s homemade rakija, the national firewater. A highlight is a side trip to Tikveš winery, where the climateandthesoilproducehigh-qualitygrapes.Varieties to look out for include red Vranac, Stanusina (both indigenous) and Merlot, while whites include Sauvignon Blanc.
Our final stop is at the Unesco heritage town of Ohrid on the shores of the lake of the same name. The fish that live in it make for some intriguing dishes and after a night at a traditional villa-turned- guesthouse, we try a local fish-stew breakfast at a waterfront cafe we’ve sailed to. My delicious, lemony broth made with lake trout is a revelation – like Macedonia itself.