Photo by Murky1/Flickr CC
I'm sort of on a roll this year sourcing food from spots you might once have vaguely heard of but know next to nothing about. Nothing from Antarctica yet, but we have been working with a really good wine vinegar from Chile, harissa and all that other good stuff from Tunisia, jams from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, and now these pretty special wild berry preserves from Serbia.
I know Serbia's not all that high in the news these days (kind of good, I'd say, given where things were at 15 years ago) and it's certainly not the spot (YET!) where people are leading culinary tours. But there's some great food there, and as William Marshall, one of the retail managers at the Deli, said with a smile, "Serbia! Who'd a thunk it?" Not me, that's for sure. Thankfully, three guys--Vaso Lekic, Milan Petkovic, Aleksandar Lekic--who run Foodland back in the Balkans, had the vision, temerity, and tenacity to make these old-style jams a reality in a way that we can get them without going all the way to Eastern Europe and driving up into the mountains to buy them.
This is the best of the Balkan fruit, gathered by hand and then cooked down in to jams pretty much just as someone's Serbian grandmother would have done.
The jams from Mauritius have big, soft, round flavors, all tropical and lush. Think beaches, Indian Ocean, equatorial climates, tropical fruit, lots of sun. The sun in Serbia certainly shines as it does elsewhere, but the work of gathering fruit by hand on steep mountainsides is no small thing. What is small, actually, is the fruit itself. In contrast to the stuff from Mauritius, these Balkan jams are all sort of spare in a way that pretty accurately reflects the roughness of the pine forests and high altitudes at which the fruit is picked.
These are mostly wild fruits, which means that by commercial standards, the berries are tiny--you can see them almost fully intact in the jars. The strawberries (my personal favorite of all these preserves) are maybe the size of the nail on your little finger, and all you have to do is open the jar to see how many are inside. The plants at these higher altitudes have to fight far harder to survive than would their cultivated cousins, meaning that they have less water and are denser and chewier with more intense flavors. The preserves that the folks in Serbia are making from them are lean, lovely, exceptionally nicely perfumed and so special (to me at least) that we've spent about two years working to bring them here from Belgrade.
There are also baby wild blueberries and really delicious wild raspberries. The cranberry preserves are remarkably good, too--caught me by surprise really. While the names of all those fruits are, of course, well familiar to folks around here, we rarely get to taste truly wild fruit in any form any more. And each jar of these jams packs in a lot of these hard-to-find little wild berries. There's also a great plum butter (that sort of thing being very big in the Balkans) that's made without any added sugar.