Ask any Macedonian to elaborate on the goings-on at local festivities and they’re likely to begin by reeling off the delicious dishes that accompany the party. Feasting is ingrained in the culture of this small Balkan nation, and a reliance on agriculture and home producing means that North Macedonia has been a haven of organic bounty and slow food long before these became buzzwords for gourmands.
In this fertile pocket of southeastern Europe, Mediterranean influences have intermingled with centuries of Ottoman rule to create a rich menu of local specialities, many of which you won’t find elsewhere. Today, food-loving rural communities are developing grassroots tourism initiatives to offer excellent culinary experiences for travellers. Often they are set in delightful stone villages rooted to the slopes of North Macedonia’s mountainous national parks, and many cater for overnight visitors. Here are five of our favourites – make sure you pack your stretchy pants!
Home cooking in Brajčino
So revered is Milka’s home cooking at bucolic Vila Raskrsnica that bigwigs based in the capital Skopje (3.5 hours away) are known to make pilgrimages out here for lunch. But it would be a travesty just to come for lunch; the five-room guesthouse sits regally at the top of the rural village of Brajčino, a wall of mountains to one side and unexpected views of dishy Lake Prespa on the other. And what’s that sprawled across the lawn? It’s an ambitious fruit and vegetable plot – hello dinner.
The village itself, on the boundaries of Pelister National Park, is a delight. Daily life is played out to the rhythm of rushing mountain streams, cherry trees flash their bright rosy hues in summer, and traditional stone architecture makes Brajčino a fascinating place to wander. Back at Vila Raskrsnica, Milka lives by a garden-to-table philosophy and produces as much as she can herself, with the help of her son. Expect offerings of homemade wine or seasonal fruit liquor as soon as you drop your bags, and freshly baked mekici (fried doughnuts) with berry jam at breakfast. For dinner, ask to try her version of lukanci (paprika-laced pork-and-leek sausages – a Brajčino speciality).
Slow food in Janče
High in the hills of Mavrovo National Park, within foraging distance of porcini mushrooms, walnuts, berries and mountain herbs, Tefik Tefikovski is another local culinary champion responsible for opening North Macedonia’s food scene to tourists. In the crumbling Mavrovo village of Janče he runs Hotel Tutto – a must for any hungry traveller. Tefik switched on to the Slow Food movement during 20 years spent living in Germany and Italy, and he was instrumental in launching North Macedonia’s own Slow Food organisation in 2009.
Tefik can offer a handful of different sleeping options around the village – from hotel rooms to quaint cottage quarters – but the centre of the community is his restaurant, where diners get front-row seats for sweeping valley views. Grab a menu as soon as you check in, because there are several local specialities that need to be pre-ordered half a day ahead. Particularly yummy are the pita (a flaky, coiled pie stuffed with tangy local cheese and spinach or leek) and the slow-roasted lamb. Also don’t miss the local-produce shop in the foyer, enthusiastically piled with fruit-based rakija (Macedonian firewater) and paper bags of dried goodies plucked from the mountain passes.
Culinary tourism in Dihovo
It might seem an unlikely tale that a former professional footballer spurred a local culinary tourism movement, but so it goes in food-loving North Macedonia. Petar Cvetkovski was a pioneer of the country’s blossoming community tourism scene and his local village, Dihovo, is now one of the top places in North Macedonia to arrange honey-tastings with a local bee-keeper, cheese sampling and homemade-wine nights. The latter take place inside his family home and now guesthouse Villa Dihovo, with three rooms and a delightfully rustic booze cellar where bottles are planted in the walls. Unusually, guests are asked to pay what they think the stay is worth – there are no set prices here.
The village itself is another comely bolthole tucked into the lower folds of Pelister National Park, and within striking distance of one of the country’s top hikes up to the top of Mt Pelister (2601m), where two glacial lakes – ‘Pelister’s Eyes’ – pierce the lofty summit. Ask Petar about his new cooking classes, which he intends to offer from 2017, and tuck into his mum’s kebabs and sarma (stuffed vine leaves) in their country garden.
Cheese tasting in Galičnik
Within hiking distance of Janče, the timber-framed village of Galičnik is famed for two things: its annual wedding festival and its coveted raw-milk hard cheeses. The latter are produced using age-old methods with animals reared on mountain pastures; one of the cheeses, sirenje, is the star of North Macedonia’s national šopska salata – a simple fuddle of tomatoes, cucumber and onion enriched with sharp, crumbly white cheese (not unlike a Greek salad).
It’s not that easy to drop by local producers on a whim, but Horse Club Bistra Galičnik offers daily horse-riding sessions accompanied by a stop for cheese tasting, which allows foodies to combine having a nibble (with a translator) and marvelling at the voluptuous mountain views. If you wish to stay in Galičnik there are a couple of guesthouses here, or you can amble over from neighbouring Janče.
Wine pairing in Tikveš
Winemaking is a ubiquitous cottage industry in North Macedonia’s villages and backyards, as it is across much of the Balkans, but it’s only in the past 20 years or so that the commercial practice has found its feet in this country. Touring the vines independently can be difficult without a guide, but winery hotel Popova Kula in North Macedonia’s Tikveš wine heartland – a 90-minute drive south of Skopje – is one place that you really must stop by.
Its tasting space in a 19th-century-inspired tower, grape-themed rooms and extended 22-hectare petticoat of vines are reason enough to stay here, but the elevated restaurant and wine-pairing menus make Popova Kula a unique food experience too. The vineyard prizes a little-known grape called Stanushina; it’s used to produce a signature dry blush rosé seemingly custom-made to slice through the acidity of North Macedonia’s national salad. The country’s unique grape varietal Vranac (a full-bodied red) is an ideal match for the traditional lamb dishes.
- First published in December 2016