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.
Then there's the stuff that doesn't grow in Serbia. I love the sensual perfume of the rose petal jam. In this case the roses actually come from Bulgaria, from the apparently very famous (though I'd never heard of it 'til now) Valley of the Roses. The roses are not the same type that you and I buy at the flower shops here in the States. Like the berries above, they're gathered in the wild--tiny small blossoms that grow out in the fields--and are harvested completely by hand for just a few weeks in May and early June. Stick a spoonful in the Creamery's fresh fromage franc and you've got a really great, very easy breakfast.
My favorite of this entire first shipment, though, is actually the green walnuts. Sounds strange, I'm sure, but truly, I think they're pretty special. They're young, immature walnuts that are cooked in sugar syrup. They're pretty fantastic--anyone who likes chestnuts in syrup or glaceed is pretty sure to love these. What we're used to in the U.S. are the fully mature, dry-textured nuts that we put on salads or eat out of hand in toasted or roasted form. These, by contrast, are the young fruits, picked before the shell is hard. They have to be rinsed and soaked nine different times, and then hand peeled and cooked in sugar syrup. The results are delicious. Honestly they're great just with a spoon, but you could do all the obvious and good things one would do--put 'em on gelato, on pound cake, Bakehouse shortcake, etc.
Basically this is the best of the Balkan fruit, as it was a century or more ago, gathered by hand and then cooked down in to jams pretty much just as someone's Serbian grandmother would have done. Given the distance between here and Belgrade, and given that Serbia's not the number one source of new American immigrants, I was thinking that I would be safe in saying that hardly anyone in our area would have been missing access to preserves like this. But then I remembered Pedja Suokvic from Xoran.
Pedja's work has nothing to do with food, or hand picking wild berries or cooking preserves in old open kettles over wood fires. What made me think of Pedja is the fact that he's from Serbia and that he likes food. I brought him a few jars for a gift--it's not every day that a Serbian living in Ann Arbor gets to eat Serbian food, and a big part of what I love about our work is that we get the chance to connect people with positive taste memories from their past. One taste of the wild strawberry, and, "Wow. I remember this! This is great!"
Serbia may seem obscure to most of us here in Ann Arbor ("Who'd a thunk it?" to come back to Mr. Marshall's quote up at the top of the page), but to someone who left there to live here, the preserves are an important cultural and emotional link to the past. For someone like me (or maybe you?) they're an invitation to visit. Serbia has moved high on my list of spots to scout in the next few years.