My hometown in Serbia is nestled snugly at the foot of the hills, protected from the harsh winds that blow from the Alps, lulled into a false sense of security. And any road you take out will lead you to more hills and more horizons interrupted by gentle green curves or sharp peaks piercing the clouds. Only when you travel far enough northeast and reach the beautiful spot where the river Sava submits to the mighty Danube, facing an old Turkish firmament at the capital city of Belgrade, will the plains open up, allowing you to watch the magnificent sun descend for a long, long time, finally falling asleep somewhere in the middle of fertile Pannonia.
I was a child conceived, born, and raised in the bosom of the hills and mountains, even though Mother longingly missed the long sunsets that teased the horizon and made golden promises of infinity to Vojvodina’s flat terrain. I possess the impulsiveness and raw passion of highlanders, aware that there will always be another peak to overcome, furtively suspicious of never-ending expanses of docile wheat undulating seductively while following the strong lead of the merciless northern winds. Our sunrises took us by surprise, changing the night into day instantaneously, jerking us into reality unrelenting, whipping us into shape within minutes with the sneering authority of a drill sergeant.
The end of the day arrived as quickly, unexpected, with the sun dipping into the cleavage of twin hills guarding the town from the west. It would inevitably try to spread its pink and purple around, wishing to caress every roof and touch every glade of grass, but the twin peaks would inexorably suck in its glow within minutes, leaving only the wounded hues of indigo to color the twilight. We adjusted and learned to live in the moment, fast on our feet, expecting a slap, a jab, a tickle from our whimsical and cruel surroundings. The shades of gray were temporary, coming and going with the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, leaving the scorching white and unfathomable black to fight for dominance.
An hour to the west lies mountain Zlatibor like a meek, voluptuous concubine showing its fertile valleys and knolls behind every lazy curve of the road, its silky green flanks flecked with flocks of sheep. It accepts travelers into its warm embrace promising comfort and denying danger, eager to spread and show off its unthreatening, innocent beauty. It offers welcome and necessary respite because somewhere beyond it, you are bound to face cold and ominous mountains with deep canyons, plunging cliffs, and unyielding rocks slashed open to let a stream through. Once you get there you know that some invisible hands will grip your throat and allow you only shallow breaths, enveloping you in air so crisp that you can barely stand upright, your whole body suddenly light and weightless.
But Zlatibor nurtures and caresses, unselfishly giving everything it possesses, eager to please and satisfy, smiling timidly with the smallest praise. Her air is fresh and fragrant with grasses that barely move in the breeze. It seduces you while bringing you strength and arming you with confidence. Its power does not hide behind intimidation. It is unassumingly spread before you in all its soft folds, dark thickets of slender pines, and gurgling springs that calm and entice at the same time.
My country is small with very few roads connecting the dots. Every time we traveled west to the Adriatic coast, we could not avoid the green haunches of Zlatibor. We always became ravenous a few miles before, letting our primal desires build, heads swimming with anticipation, oblivious to the landscape surrounding us. Father would park his bright orange Lada in front of an unassuming inn and we would pour out, stretching and jumping, breathing the cool mountain air with full lungs, feeling welcome and safe. We would sit at the table with wooden benches and Father would order for us without consulting us, the menu, or the waiter. Only in Zlatibor would he disregard our wishes because there was but one dish that all of us craved: komplet lepinja.
This is a simple fare, but unattainable anywhere else. Freshly baked small rounds of soft bread (lepinje) are sliced in half, slathered with aged, locally made golden kajmak*, brushed with a brightly orange, slightly beaten egg and suffused with richly flavored juices left over after roasting a lamb or a piglet. The two halves are placed in an oven and baked for a few minutes until the edges crisp up and become lightly blushed from the heat. We had no reason to speak when our hungry mouths reached this infused bread hot from the oven. With eyes glazed over, we took the first bite, sighing in contentment, knowing that it was worth waiting for.
After the last crumbs disappeared from our plates, we would reluctantly leave the inn and pile into the good, old Lada, basking in the afterglow of our experience. We felt that the mountain surrendered herself with abandon, satisfying our every need and bringing a satiated smile to our lips. While we rode her creases back to our town, we were grateful and happy, assured that one day soon we would return and accept her gift again and again.
*Kajmak is the specialty of Serbia. Fresh milk is slowly heated in big, shallow pots until it simmers. When it cools off, the fat that gathered on the top is collected, placed in a dish, and salted. Kajmak can be eaten immediately or it can be aged until it’s crumbly and strong.
(My sister took all of the beautiful photos above).
KOMPLET LEPINJA (ALL IN ONE BREAD)
To satisfy our cravings and to save the bread from going stale, Mother made a take on this dish, excluding the roasted meat juices as they were usually unavailable. She spoiled my girls by making them this baked bread for breakfast and now I am challenged to execute it in my Southern California kitchen. I am so glad I managed to bring kajmak home!
There is no need for a traditional recipe – photographs are enough.