Travel Story Smoke signals Serbian tastes

Strings of red peppers dry on house in Serbian village Donja Lokosnica

Meat and music are the heady ingredients for a grill festival in southern Serbia.

The smell hits you before anything else, about halfway between the bus station and the town centre, filling your nostrils and urging you onward.

Then there’s the sight of it, a literal smoke signal, wafting upwards from street level before dissipating in the sun. Finally, as you approach, comes the sound: a hundred brass instruments, racing each other through the furious melodies of the folk music, known as truba, endemic to this part of the world. 

For the next five days, all roads in Leskovac, in south-eastern Serbia, will lead to the city’s 28th annual rostiljijada, or grill festival, where meat spits and sizzles, beer flows in abundance, and waistlines are all too conveniently forgotten.

Leskovac is known for its meat. Some claim that cevapi, the skinless sausages of ground beef ubiquitous throughout the Balkans, were invented here; others that the reputation rests on a local chef’s invention of the meatloaf-like Leskovac ustipak — ground beef, onions, cheese and ground peppers.

More recently, the city has tried to cement its reputation with successful world-record attempts, such as the creation, at the 2016 festival, of the world’s biggest burger, or pljeskavica, weighing 63kg. Recently, they attempted a 65kg burger, nearly 2m in diameter before cooking. (Leskovac somehow continues to fail to invite Guinness representatives to witness its culinary feats.)

We emerge from our hotel into the festivities at the onset of dusk, patrolling the city’s main thoroughfare, Bulevar Oslobodenja, and perusing the various offerings. We decide to leave the countless hamburgers and sausages for lunch tomorrow — I have my eyes on some rissole-like things that may or may not be some unfortunate animal’s testicles — and settle instead upon spit-roasted pork and lamb. 

This decision requires further choices to be made: at least 50 animals can be seen rotating out the front of the street’s several hundred stalls at any given time, their predecessors hacked up into dine-in and takeaway portions beneath plastic awnings emblazoned with beer logos. 

We employ the age-old tactic of eating at the most popular place on the strip — it won last year’s meticulously judged competition for the best stall — and are presented with a platter overflowing with meat and a salad consisting of peppers, cabbage and fresh tomato. Paprika, of course, appears on every Serbian menu, and in many guises.

I have worked as a restaurant critic and am fully aware of the editorial moratorium on “succulent”, “mouth-watering” and “delicious”.

The meat demands that all three be used and that they be used in abundance. Roma children dart between tables, begging for money before being run out by the staff, drawn to the diners like moths to a flame and as unperturbed by the staff’s entreaties to get lost as a moth to a swatting hand. 

A trumpet begins a slow lament behind us in the dark, instantly recognisable as the same lament that opens Emir Kustrurica’s Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece Underground, and then the horns and tubas surrounding the soloist launch into the piece’s mad, driving refrain, written for the movie by Goran Bregovic, the reigning master of truba music.

The title of the piece describes it perfectly, in terms of its style and effect: it’s called Kalashnikov. One’s impulse is almost to eat faster, keeping time.

We stroll away from the meat stalls past the pop-up street bars and bandstand, where a local rock band is mixing it up, through stalls offering balloons, the local distillate known as rakija, and T-shirts. One can buy shirts seriously celebrating Vladimir Putin’s hyper-masculinity and others displaying maps of the country with Kosovo intact and the incendiary words “100 per cent Serbia”. 

Another shows Slobodan Milosevic’s face above the equally incendiary “You know, there are others worse than me”. I’m reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ words about “Serbia’s combination of arrogance and self-pity”, the shirt with the map demonstrating the former, the one with the dictator’s visage the latter.

All very curious in a city that has only been Serbian since 1878, when the Treaty of Berlin came into effect. Before that, it was Ottoman territory. But nationalism tends to be most fervent at the fringes and historical memory is long in the Balkans. Some would say it is too long, obsessed with the past at the expense of the future. 

There can be no doubt that the festival’s culinary and musical styles owe much to “the Turks,” as both the Ottoman occupiers and the Slavs they converted are still known in these parts, and that the region would be somewhat less interesting without them.

But the Leskovac rostiljijada is a paean to an almost folkloric time — certainly an invented one — before the wars, before the Ottoman invasion. Not even the presence of modern agricultural equipment on display — there is something of the agricultural show about the festival, with suppliers coming from all over the region to hawk their wares — can quite dislodge the sense that we’re being borne back into the past for a while. But remembering the past can also mean forgetting it.

One suspects that the entire city is like this, outside the week of the festival as well as during it. On our last day in town we decide to forgo the grills and spits of the event in favour of two sit-down meals: both are characterised, again, by the local obsession with meat. 

At a place off the boulevard, I enjoy a hamburger stuffed to the gills with cheese. It costs less than $3 and makes me swoon. At Restaurant ABC, looking out on to the city’s central park, we indulge in smoked pork and muckalica, a stew of barbecued meat and vegetables, at least as good as anything available on the street.

All of which rather begs the question: what need for the festival at all, except to indulge with even greater enthusiasm in the pleasures one is afforded here every day? Leskovac is not different during its rostiljijada but rather, simply, more like itself — or at least its idea of itself — than usual. The spits keep turning as we make our way to the bus station, the smoke rising above them, the music playing through it. One imagines that they’re turning still. 

Top picture: Strings of peppers dry on a house in the village of Donja Lokosnica. Picture: Getty Images

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