In the small farming town of Guca in southern Serbia, the notes of a crazy melody break the peace and quiet. A festival of gipsy and traditional music has begun. This typical event takes place every year; it lasts three days and is attended by 300,000 people from all over the country. Too many of the rough young men wear Milosevic or Karadic T-shirts, but there are also enchanting dancers, and beautiful children with deep eyes begging at the street corners. There are a few foreign people, too, attracted by the Balkan folklore and the scent of hundreds of suckling pigs roasting on spits. . It’s hard to move through the crowd; thereare simply too many people for such a small place.
Finally, the superstars of this amazing weekend arrive: more than 40 gipsy brass bands, who play each day from a cannon shot in the morning till dawn the next day. All bands play a different song at the same time in an amazing competition. They play traditional Serbian music, melodies that we western visitors are familiar with thanks to Bregovic, who composed the beautiful soundtracks for Emir Kusturica’s movies. In an incredibly boisterous non-stop show, drums, trumpets, tubas and trombones make the tents shake over our heads, which are spinning by the end of the day.
This festival of traditional music is a festival of food as well. From time to time, cooks red in the face from the embers, sprinkle the roasting meat with oil and herbs. On the brazier, clay jars full of cabbage and meat bubble away until the early hours. Serbian cuisine, like other Balkan cuisines, has been influenced by oriental culture (especially Russian and Turkish). Its most important feature is meat, that can be roasted, cooked on a spit or grilled. The Cevàpcici is small sausage of minced and highly spiced pork, while the Raznici, a small pork kebab served with finely chopped raw onions. The Pljeskavice, finally, is a flat patty of different minced meats, roasted and served between two pieces of Arab bread—a sort of ‘primitive hamburger’.
The gipsies and musicians make toasts all day long with draught beer comes directly from the BiP Pivo tank-truck, and Rakja, the strong local grape brandy. Coca-Cola cans are obviously there with other soft drinks at the stalls, but it’s impossible to find a real Turkish coffee (kafa); only espresso coffee served. It seems that the chaos of Guca doesn’t isn’t conducive to the calm required by this custom.
We were able to indulge in the rite on the way home, however; in a small coffee bar in downtown Sarajevo, in Bosnia Herzegovina, far away from the clamor of the gypsybands. The very center of the city is a small oasis of pretty undamaged buildings with a nice-looking fountain and elegant, intact minarets, all miraculously spared by the war. Neighboring building have been defaced by mortar fire and entire families still live in disembowelled suburban highrises.
Here the coffee is called Bosnian coffee (kahva) and you drink it in a small cup without handle. This was the biggest cultural difference before the war—with or without a handle. Then, at the first sign of conflict, the words kava for Croatians, kafa for Serbians and khava for Bosnians were enough to classify others. This progressive emergence of cultural peculiarities concerns some dishes as well. Protection of identity was reflected in attachment to ancient rites of eating. Cevapcici, for example, originally a Turkish dish, were seen during the war as a symbol of Serbian supremacy. This (the imposition of another identity enforced through food).also led to the collapse of Bosnian food culture, a tolerant culture just as the country’s multiethnic society was tolerant. As the Paolo Rumiz, an Italian journalist who works for the Repubblica newspaper, has written, each Bosnian Catholic house had an earthenware pot for Jewish and Muslim in which pork was never cooked.
Séverine Petit is a student of International Diplomatic Sciences at the University of Trieste and contributes to the website www.osservatoriobalcani.org
Photo by S. Petit