Up in the mountains of Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park a local woman from Janche stretches out dough over the length of a table to make a traditional pita pie at Hotel Tutto. Macko, a young beekeeper dressed in Curious George yellow in Dihovo, southwestern Macedonia, counts the number of times he’s been stung over the course of the day which at times can reach as high as fifty. An hour away in Kuratica, a former journalist turned homestay proprietor, Goran practices a rendition of Stand by Me on the guitar with his teenage son Nick while the lady of the house prepares a feast of pie, salads and game for guests. They are just some of the many locals who made an impression on me while I was on a photography assignment with Intrepid Travel for their new food tour offering: Real Food Adventure to Macedonia and Montenegro.
Skopje green market
I can’t claim that it was love at first sight in Macedonia. Before I met the locals, experienced the calm of Lake Ohrid, the oldest lake in Europe, and set my eyes on an atmospheric Mavrovo National Park I first found my bearings in Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia or as Jane, our knowledgeable local guide, calls it: the “concrete jungle”. We descended into the modern area of new builds scattered with large looming statues built in dedication to old Macedonian rulers and heroes – all a product of the government’s regeneration efforts called Skopje 2014. As an empty tram that better fits the surroundings of Disneyland passed by I shuffled past the sterile space.
“You can find anything at the green market, except your mother and father,” a passerby quipped as he led us to Skopje’s open air marketplace. That’s where I found and welcomed the contrast to Skopje’s concrete jungle, among the mounds of produce and in between the conversations of locals. If a chef’s sanctuary is in the kitchen then mine is in the chaos of a food market. There the locals proved to be a friendly and curious bunch. My simple purchase of half a kilo of strawberries was noteworthy enough for both buyers and sellers to crowd around and witness the transaction.
In another corner of the market I couldn’t resist the temptation of lamaxhun, a pizza like wrap with minced meat, lettuce, cucumber and onions, despite having just stuffed myself with burek for breakfast, a filo pastry filled with spinach or meat and cheese and taken with a light yogurt drink.
A taste of Macedonian cuisine
When the five-meats platter of grilled chicken, beef, lamb, red sausage and kebapche arrived at our table for lunch at Turist Restaurant in the Old Bazaar district I instinctively sized up Macedonian cuisine to primarily be a carnivore’s delight. What I didn’t expect is the emphasis on fresh salads, cheese and produce on the table which shouldn’t surprise since Macedonia is the largest exporter of fruit and vegetables in the Balkans.
It didn’t take long to realize that Macedonian cuisine is familiar and without pretense. This extends to their national dishes such as tavche gravche (bean stew) and the beloved orangey-red pepper relish, ajvar. My two favorite food memories stretched from an unusual breakfast of light trout soup (it tastes a million times better than it sounds) while overlooking the sparkling waters of Lake Ohrid to a group dinner at our homestay in Leunovo, an area better known for skiing and winter sports in the colder months. Over a course of homemade bread, an array of cheeses and a dish of stuffed green peppers (polneti piperki) that is every bit as comforting as it is unphotogenic, Danny and Tina shyly regaled us with stories of their home and their courtship (it took him a whole year to gather courage to court his lady!). And as with any good meal it started and ended with a generous pour of rakija a Macedonia brandy that is as popular to Macedonians as a spritz is to Italians.
Macedonia destinations: Ohrid, Mavrovo National Park & Matka Canyon
Infrastructure in Macedonia is still a work in progress but that did not prevent us from seeing some spectacular sights around the country. Jane, our Macedonia expert and Intrepid guide, led us through Matka Canyon, home to many medieval monasteries, to see the Vrelo cave, one of the deepest underwater caves in the world, before stopping for a BBQ of red sausages, oyster mushrooms along with the usual suspects of salad and cheese washed down with rakija and Macedonian red.
Rain had moved in during our hike in the Mavrovo National Park to catch a glimpse of the Duf waterfall. Snails about half the size of a golf ball surfaced along our route, little did I know it was foreshadowing that evening’s dinner (cooked with a slick of grease & garlic and served with a side of aubergine). By the time we made it to Hotel Tutto, Mr Tutto the hotel proprietor and founder of Macedonia’s slow food movement had already started preparing our long al fresco lunch with ingredients primarily sourced from the surrounding area of Janche. While Ismetka’s pita pie making skills was mesmerizing to watch it was the slow cook polenta doused with fat and dish of mountain mushrooms (collected from their backyard) that elevated the slow food experience for me.Where Mavrovo National Park is atmospheric and verdant Ohrid is relaxed and clear blue. Over the summer months Macedonians descend on Ohrid to holiday and now that I know there are direct flights from London I may as well too. Fish from the glacial lake is the area’s specialty and while not many people would find the idea of trout stew, similar to that of a light congee, for breakfast appetizing you would be pleasantly surprised. Kanevche, a restaurant that is situated right on Lake Ohrid, is where you’ll want to enjoy your meal and view. History and architecture buffs would particularly enjoy a walk through old town for sights of a Roman amphitheater discovered in the 1980s that is now used for summer concerts and a view of St John Church looming over Lake Ohrid.
Wine in Macedonia
“I spill many things but not wine,” Ivana Simjanovska said as she decanted a bottle of 2013 Vranec Reserve. Our food tour of Macedonia was nearing an end but not before a wine tasting at Popova Kula Winery led by Ivana, a leading wine expert. We learned that while Macedonia does not have a culture of wine it is (approx) the 25th largest producer in the world. Up in the priest’s tower, which is what the winery is named after, we sampled wines made from indigenous grapes such as stanushina, zilavka and vranec. I found Macedonian wine easy to enjoy and of incredible value, that much is evident when later that evening I carved out room in my luggage for a bottle of Stanushina Rose and Vranec Reserve purchased for about £10 total.
Macedonia food tour with Intrepid Travel
The Intrepid Travel philosophy was new to me but within 5 days I realized I’ve been “intrepidized”. I embrace their commitment to and support of the communities in which they operate by hiring local guides and experts. My experience was made richer from the people I met, the tidbits of history and knowledge Jane imparted and introduction to a culture and cuisine that was never on my radar.
Intrepid Travel’s new 10-day Real Food Adventure to Macedonia and Montenegro starts from £1,260 per person. The price includes accommodation, selected meals, ground transport and the services of a local guide. There are three departures this summer and five planned for 2017.
Note: I was a guest of Intrepid Travel with an assignment to photograph the tour, all views are my own.