The next world bread post comes from the Balkans. I’m so happy to have found Aida and her blog. She makes Balkans food easily accessible to people who know nothing about the Balkans like me. For this specific article, the countries referring to the Balkans are the Ex-Yugoslavia countries (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo), however the Balkans also encompasses Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and parts of Turkey.
When Fran reached out and asked me to do a piece in her series about bread, she framed it in such a lovely way (“I’d like to make a point that there is a lot more that connects us human beings than that separates us,” she said), there was no way I could say no.
But first, let me introduce myself: I’m Aida, and I run balkanlunchbox.com. It’s a food blog about traditional and contemporary Balkan cuisine. In addition to developing recipes and photographing food, I write stories about life in that charming, excitable part of the world. As of this year, my sister Aleksandra joined me in this adventure, and together we’ve started filming Tasty-inspired video recipes as well.
Fran’s words resonated with me because I started blogging for a similar reason. The Balkans gets such a bad rep (sometimes deservedly), but food is one area it really excels in. No matter what Balkan country you visit, your taste buds will be mesmerized by the richness of its hearty stews, fantastic grilled meats, organic vegetables and fruit, filling desserts, and inevitably, the bread!
Bread is such a comfort food. You’d have to reach far and wide to find a culture for which bread isn’t a culinary foundation. So it is in the Balkans, where, whether it’s flatbread, pie, or regular bread, this dough goodness makes up a large part of the daily food experience.
This ritual starts at breakfast, which is usually a lighter affair of coffee plus a crescent (kifla), sometimes with butter, jam or eggs. Moving on to lunch (which is the main meal of the day and conducted a little later, around 2-3PM), bread is consumed with almost every dish except pita (pie) or pizza. And when you think about it, when you consume a pie you’re essentially eating bread with a filling. Finally, at night, bread (sometimes in form of little fried breads called uštipci), is consumed with cured meats and cheeses, or by itself.
There are a lot of bakeries in the Balkans, and they stay open well into the night (some even overnight), so fresh bread and pastries are available at any time. If one bakery is not to your liking, there is another one just down the road. Meanwhile, some people make their own bread called hljeb or kruh. Back in the day this used to be the regular white flour dough bread with a harder crust (not overly hard or crunchy though). Today, people are experimenting with different seeds and flours, so there are as many recipes as the imagination will allow.
Bread is an essential part of the holidays also. During the month of Ramadan, each night the fast ceases with a meal called iftar. An integral part of this meal is somun (lepinja), a soft, round flatbread (made from yeast, white flour, and water) similar to Middle Eastern pita bread, except softer, larger and with recognizable square impressions on top. During this month, people lining the streets outside neighborhood bakeries just before sunset, waiting for their hot somun, is a scene you’ll run into every year in the Balkans.
In the Orthodox religion there is a fun bread tradition during Christmas when a special type of bread called česnica is made and taken to church for a blessing. After returning home, a family will break this bread by hands, and it is believed that the person who finds a coin (previously placed there during preparation) in their piece will have an especially happy and healthy upcoming year. Meanwhile in the Catholic tradition, a special kind of wheat seed is bought a few weeks before Christmas, and placed in soil. By the time the holiday rolls around, the seed will have started to sprout. It is placed on the table as decoration, and a symbol of good luck and prosperity for the following year (wheat of course representing bread and bounty).
Crescents (kifle) of all kinds are consumed in great amounts. These are easily spotted in the bakeries as long, soft pastries with a crescent-like arch. They are perfect to eat by themselves, or as a part of a sandwich. There are also kiflice, their smaller version, usually with a filling (jam, Nutella or cheese). Slanci, or pretzel-like long, thin, breadsticks with plenty of salt on top are just as soft and tasty as kifle, but longer and are just as tasty by themselves as they are with meat and cheese.
There are also rolls and strudels with different fillings. (Since we’re talking about fillings, there is also a wide-ranging dish called pita, essentially phyllo dough with a different filling, but that’s a whole new article.) And finally, there are different braided breads called pletenice, ranging from savory to sweet.
My very favorite kind of Balkan bread is pogača, a no-rise, yogurt based traditional bread that has as many recipes as there are people in the Balkans. It’s a metaphor for Balkan mentality which is soft on the inside, but with a hardened shell. However, once you give it proper care and attention, it melts in your hands suggesting we’re all made out of the same stuff, regardless of where we come from and where we end up.
Text and photos by Aida / balkanlunchbox.com