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At a Serbian Salaš, Tradition is Always On The Menu

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Different kinds of homemade rakija, a Balkan brandy made from fruit. Believed to cure colds and many other ailments.

Most tourists visiting Serbia, if they manage to make it out of Belgrade at all, will likely only see a handful of the country’s other popular cities. Most tourists are missing out. For travelers seeking an experience away from the city lights, Vojvodina’s many salaš destinations offer a quiet escape, and hearty meals, amidst rich cultural and familial heritage.

The word salaš stems from the hungarian “szállás,” which literally means accommodation. In this case, it refers to small farms with family homes, akin to ranches, specifically located in the Pannonian region of Serbia, or modern day Vojvodina. The Autonomous Province of Vojvodina is home to 26 different ethnic groups, making it a fascinating place to explore identity. For this reason, when the weight of the ever-present election news cycle (yes, it also exists abroad) began to take it’s toll on me, I decided to unplug for a few days at a salaš outside of Novi Sad.

When I arrived at Brkin Salaš with a friend, we were the only people staying there. The owners, Nataša and Goran Matić, made us feel right at home and, most importantly, immediately fed us. In a large dining room covered in relics and photos from the past, we feasted on a number of traditional dishes and drinks.

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A century-old brick oven where the Matić family cooks meals for guests.
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Though this punjene paprike looks a bit toasty, I assure you it tasted divine.

For dinner, we had punjene paprika (stuffed peppers) and cabbage salad while sipping on homemade quince rakija (brandy) and fresh mint juice. We finished off the meal with bundevara (pumpkin pie), lenja pita (apple pie), and a spiced red wine from a nearby monastery. Though they haven’t gone through the trouble of seeking organic certification, these farms use sustainable practices that date back hundreds of years. Everything we ate here was either grown on their land or locally sourced, making the food we’ve become accustomed to in Belgrade pale in comparison.

As the night leisurely passed us by, some of Nataša’s friends came to join her for tea. Goran, being the only English speaker in the house, chatted with us about the history of the farm. We learned that his mother-in-law inherited Brkin Salaš after working as a caretaker for its previous owner, Milan Ozren. Though no one from the Ozren blood line remains here, their family portraits still hang around the farm, allowing them to easily watch over their legacy.

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Milan Ozren, the previous owner of Brkin Salaš, and his sisters at their weddings.
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Birds roaming freely on the property in the morning.

We woke quite late in the morning, despite rooster calls, and had a walk around the premises. Turkeys and chickens roamed freely on the chilly November morning; fog hung in the air. We took refuge in the same dining room as the night before, though the morning light gave us a new appreciation for its details.

Herbal tea and Turkish coffee adorned a breakfast of meats, cheeses, bread, fresh eggs, and ajvar (red pepper spread). The traditional Serbian meals we had here, like in the rest of the country, tell stories of empires won and lost. I left the farm with a revived appreciation for traditional cooking in Serbia, and a desire to visit as many salaši (plural) as possible.

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Ajvar, a Serbian spread/relish made with red peppers and garlic.

Throughout much of Europe, agro-tourism is a mainstay and can be navigated with ease. But, in Serbia, it is a tad more difficult. Each salaš is owned and inhabited by a single family, and some do not speak a second language. It often takes a while to get a response via email, so phoning is usually best. And if you don’t have a car, their locations can be quite tricky to get to.

It is because of these difficulties for foreigners that salaši have been able to maintain their authenticity — so much so, that I almost didn’t write this article. But tourism has become essential to the livelihood of many salaš owners. With cheaper and cheaper food products being imported to Serbia, these small estates have struggled to survive off of agriculture alone. For many, like Nataša and Goran, sharing their family’s love for their land has now translated to opening up a home stay and restaurant for visitors. Lucky for us.