This winter has been unkind to us in so many ways. New York City is still freezing cold and Dr. V calls me every day to complain. In Belgrade it’s 70°F outside and the winter is long gone; the streets have turned green overnight, the trees are blooming and the parks are blanketed with dandelions. I am spending a week in Belgrade, at home away from home, taking care of Mr. Stan. He is alone now and needs all the love I can give him. And more.
I devise a plan to take Stan to the market. There is nothing Mr. Stan likes more than green markets. Every Saturday, as long as I remember, he would wake up at six in the morning, he would grab his wicker basket and run out -- practically opening the market. But times have changed, the city is different, the people are different, even the farmers are not what they used to be and six o clock is not an option anymore. Mr. Stan still wakes up at six, he writes down his shopping list neatly, and then waits patiently until 8.30. Eight thirty is the new dawn for the market goers in Belgrade.
It’s eight thirty and we are at the corner of Kalenic Pijaca, where Mr. Stan has been a regular for decades. Kalenic is the heaven on earth for market lovers, with its 839 stalls of produce and goods, and another 114 in the cheese/meat section. All the New York City markets combined have nothing on Belgrade when it comes to Kalenic and its somewhat smaller cousins all over the city: Palilula, Djeram, Bajlonova Pijaca, Zeleni Venac...
I sense that Stan is not super-happy for the company. It has always been him and the market, like the old man and the sea, and I do not fit in the picture. I am an intruder, I break his rhythm and worst of all, carried by the winds of excitement I run around and buy everything from everyone, the worst possible offense in the Book of Stan, because he has "his" folks. Stan rushes me to the refrigerated hall, where we buy ten eggs from an old lady, one of the trusted few. Stan explains that the lady is a designated village person in charge of collecting eggs from all households; an egg here, an egg there, a couple of dozen altogether; all of different sizes, shapes, some brown, some white and an occasional duck egg; yolks in the color of the rising sun and taste from another world. She brings them to the market on Sundays, it's all first-come-first-serve and within fifteen minutes the eggs are gone.
Relieved of the egg pressures, we are now allowed to have breakfast. Kalenic is lined with bakeries in a uniquely chaotic way, but there is some perfection to the madness and wherever you go the aroma of fresh bread follows and then hides in the dark, narrow alleys of the market as if to warm them up. During the five hundred years of Turkish rule, the Serbs got used to oriental bakeries, and when the Turks finally left, the Serbs kept the delicacies, most notably djevrek, the ring-shaped bread pastry covered with sesame, burek, the baked phyllo pies stuffed with cheese or minced meat, and somun, a Turkish version of ciabatta. Armed with fresh djevrek, I go back to the cold zone to sample fresh cheeses, clotted cream and the greatest Serbian delicacy of all, pork rinds, čvarci. Stan and I buy goat cheese and sheep cheese, we buy the very-same-day-fresh kajmak (clotted cream) still runny, sweet and buttery, and the aged, rock-hard, sharp-tasting kajmak for a pie. We then hit the outdoors fruit and vegetable stalls of other Stan-approved farmers. They ask about mom; Stan cries. He will be crying for a long time. The farmers give us food and flowers to take home. I realize that Kalenic is not the best of ideas. “Dad,” I tell him, “This market is not what it used to be. It’s overflowing with Gypsy re-sellers, cheep homeware and second-hand goods,” all true, but I am still lying, “let’s go to a different one.”
And so we find ourselves at Bajlonova Pijaca, the second largest Belgrade market, where I hit the refrigerated hall again, for another round of cheese sampling, and where I get into an argument with the butcher over the state of his pork belly. Mr. Stan quietly thanks God that it is not his butcher and not his market. He is visibly more comfortable here, there are no familiar faces and no rhythm to break. Outdoors, we finally get to concentrate on the produce. And what a wonderful produce it is: ramps, sorrel, radishes, young and tender onions, spring garlic, nettle and dandelion; a few dewdrops still under its leaves. “Come on beauty, take these, take two, these are the best dandelions you will ever find,” the farmers are advertising their goods with no shame. In Belgrade markets I am forever young, they call me “kid”, they call me “daughter” and “beauty”. In return I call them "grandpa" and "boss". The day at the stall is long and they need a little action to kill time and a piece of gossip to keep the spirits high, “These have not seen the light of the day,” an elderly woman with a headscarf comments on the greenhouse vegetables at the neighboring stall. My camera is still hiding inside the bag, the farmers don’t like to have their pictures taken, they do not approve of the lens peeking at their produce and I chit chat endlessly, and I buy their greens and beat around the bushes to get on their good side and score a shot or two.
At the end of the day, Stan and I are in possession of half of the market. We have every single spring flower and vegetable in at least two versions and close to zero photographs. We take a walk through the old town, slowly, about an hour-long journey back home, where we arrange everything on the living room table and plan our menu. Everything must be consumed, everything must be cooked as soon as possible, because the life must go on and there are 16 more markets in Belgrade to go to. We have not even scratched the surface.
Pasta Squares with Sautéed Ramps and Young Garlic
Flekice (or “tiny spots”) are homemade pasta squares traditionally sold at the Serbian markets. Flekice is used in soups and in famous “poor-man” Serbian dish of pasta and sautéed cabbage. My grandmother used to make the squares every week, she would roll a gigantic piece of dough by hand, cut it into inch-size squares, and dry the mounds of flekice on the dining room table. If you would like to try your own squares, follow a recipe for lasagna sheets, such as one in here, and then cut the sheets into about 3/4 to an inch sized squares. Let the squares dry thoroughly before storing.
* 200g (7 oz) ramps, cut into a chiffonade
* 200g (7 oz) pasta squares (or any other similar pasta)
* 4-5 sprigs of young garlic, white and light green parts only, sliced thinly crosswise
* about 2 tbsp heavy cream
* 2 tbsp olive oil
* 1 tbsp butter
* salt and freshly grated pepper
1. In a large skillet heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until soft, for about a minute or two. Add the ramps and continue to sauté until the ramps are soft and loose their chewiness, for about another two to three minutes. Add the heavy cream and sauté for another minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and season with salt and pepper.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta squares and cook to desired doneness. Drain the pasta and add a tablespoon or so of butter to prevent from sticking. Mix well.
3. Transfer the pasta to individual plates, top with ramps and serve.
Sorrel Soup with Veal and Spring Onions
* 250 g (9 oz) veal cutlets
* 8 spring onions, white and light green parts only, sliced thinly crosswise
* 1.5 l (6 cups) beef or vegetable broth
* 500 ml (2 cups) water
* 85 g (3 oz) rice
* 200 g (7 oz) sorrel, cut into thick chiffonade
* 2 tbsp vegetable oil
* a pinch of Hungarian paprika
* salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Hand-chop the veal. (Alternatively ask your butcher to grind it coarsely.)
2. In a large pot warm up the broth and water.
3. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the veal and brown it nicely. When the veal is browned, reduce the heat to medium and add the onions. Sautee the onions for about a minute or two until soft. Add the rice and cook for another minute, until rice is translucent. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of Hungarian paprika.
4. Add the veal mixture to the broth and bring to a boil. Once the broth is boiling, reduce the heat to maintain the broth at gentle simmer. Cook for about 20 minutes, until rice is done.
5. Add the sorrel to the soup and simmer for another couple of minutes, until sorrel has wilted. Serve warm, with a dollop of sour cream and fresh bread.