Read, Write, Run, Roam


Djokovic pays top dollar for his slice…of cheese

Who has two thumbs and likes expensive cheese?

According to The Sun, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic has bought the entire 2013 supply of the world’s most expensive cheese, costing £800 a kilo, or almost $650 a pound. (Meanwhile, I’m too cheap to buy the good brie…)

The cheese is called pule, named after a young donkey. I think. (I don’t even know what a young donkey is called in American english. Cub? Foal?) Anyway, as the name implies, the cheese is made from donkey milk. The donkeys are from Zasavica, Serbia, northwest of Belgrade.  According to my bad translation of this article, it takes 50 liters of donkey milk, taken by hand, to make one kilogram/2.2 pounds of cheese. The milk is prized as anti-allergenic, particularly when raw, as donkey milk has 60 times more vitamin C than cow milk.

I’m sad to say I’ve never heard of this cheese before. Who knew I had been living so close to the world’s most expensive cheese? Who knew the world’s most expensive cheese is from Serbia?

Anyway, Djokovic is going using his year’s supply of cheese for a his chain of restaurants in Serbia, called Novak. The Belgrade Novak restaurant is conveniently located by the Djokovic tennis courts. I’m not sure how many people can afford $650/lb cheese in Serbia, but I’ll make him a deal: if there’s a ton left over, I’ll come by next summer and challenge him to a tennis match. Whoever loses gets a pound of pule sir. Do I drive a hard bargain or what?


Pet Peeve Petak: the Belgrade ban on…Magnum Ice Cream

Ok, I admit it: I’ve got a soft spot for Belgrade. I’ve always focused on the things I loved about the city, because there were more than enough negative misconceptions about it. And yet, after two years of managing this blog, I think I’m ready to log a serious complaint about the white city.

There is, as of this September, NO MAGNUM ICE CREAM in Belgrade.

I was first alerted to Magnum Ice Cream in August 2011. My friend Majmun came to visit Belgrade, and after a long walk we decided to buy the sweet stuff. She looked at various ice cream carts before asking me, “Do you have Magnum ice cream here?” I shrugged, and she extolled the virtues of the Magnum. Thick chocolate! Vanilla bean-flecked ice cream! Every flavor delicious!

I thought she was overselling it, until we encountered it while walking in Sarajevo a few days later.


It. Was. Amazing.

After discovering the magic of magnum, I redoubled my efforts to find it in Belgrade, only to come up empty-handed. So Muz and I decided to try to find it in other countries. We ate raspberry Magnum in Vienna, Classic Magnum in Macedonia, Almond Magnum in Budapest, Caramel Magnum in Croatia, and even had a Magnum McFlurry at a McDonald’s in Prague. (Don’t judge–they had great wireless!)


We traveled quite a bit, but it never took the sting out of missing Magnum in Serbia. It was available over almost every border: in Croatia, Hungary, Bosnia, and (I think) Slovenia. It felt a bit cruel. What’s preventing Serbia from importing Magnum?

In retrospect, maybe it was a good thing we didn’t have Magnum in Belgrade. It would have become less special, or we would’ve become a lot bigger. And there are plenty of other outlets for the ice cream itch in town. Now that we’re back, we still keep it as a special treat. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a serious pet peeve. DSC03159

Thanksgiving: American Slava

After my grumpy post yesterday, and my three hours of pre-Thanksgiving cooking today, I realized: Thanksgiving is basically American slava.

A slava is the celebration of a Serbian family’s patron saint. I’ve been told that the family saint is selected according to the proximity of a Saint’s celebration to the date that the Serbian family accepted the Orthodox religion. That’s the (sort of) official version.

Unofficially, a slava is a crazy day–or two–of non-stop eating, visitors, music, and alcohol.

And this is just for uncle Pedja

Today, Serbians are celebrating the slava of St. Michael. So while I do a little prep work for tomorrow’s meal, I’m channeling the energy of Serbian housewives who are overseeing the spit roast of at least one animal, inviting a priest over to bless the bread, serving sweets before and after the meal, planning to feed anywhere from 30-80 people, bringing the extra stash of rakija into the house, and fortifying chairs because at some point, people will start dancing on them.

So…no complaints here. (Especially since my stash of rakija is conveniently close to the kitchen.) Happy Thanksgiving and Srecna Slava, everyone!

The Amazing Race

 I can’t believe no one told me about this last summer: The Ajvar 5k just outside of Washington, DC!

Good news (for me): I am not the only person around here obsessed with ajvar. There is an entire race devoted to the ruby goodness. Okay, so it’s actually a fundraiser for needy children in Macedonia, but runners get a jar of ajvar at the finish. Helping kids, getting a little exercise AND receiving fine European foods?  DONE.

Next year’s race is scheduled for September 8th. You can bet I’ll be there–unless I’m lucky enough to be in Macedonia running around Lake Ochrid instead.

Not a runner? You can still help sponsor the event. A donation as little as $5 will get you an honorable mention as a “Friend of Ajvar.” Though really, who ISN’T a friend of ajvar?

For more information, click on the race Facebook page HERE.


Tout sweet: sampling Paris’ finest pastry at Jacques Genin

Leave the hot dog, take the roll

You know those “Three days in Paris” articles? Let’s take that a step further. If you only had 15 minutes in Paris, there’s only one thing you should do: eat pastry. Grab a pain au chocolat at the airport, filch a croissant from a hotel, steal a roll from a pigeon if you have to.  Even if you’re can’t go to the finest pastry shop, it’s bound to be pretty freakin’ good in Paris.

But if you have more than 15 minutes, do yourself a favor: eat pastry at Jacques Genin.

I first heard about Jacques Genin while researching Paris-Brest pastry. (Why yes, I research pastry shops before a trip. Who doesn’t?) The Paris-Brest, a tire-shaped pastry filled with hazelnut praline cream and dusted with powdered sugar, was created by a baker to commemorate a 750-mile bicycle race from, you guessed it, Paris to Brest. We commemorated this history by walking a whole mile (!) to Jacques Genin, one of one of the best places to try the classic pastry.

As I opened the door, Muz stopped me. “This is a jewelry store,” he said, and I had to correct him. Those gleaming babies in the window were caramels, not jewels.

We walked into a huge, flashy area that seemed more like a showroom than a pastry shop. I was a little nervous, wondering if a place this fancy was more focused on decor than food. Thankfully, we ordered anyway. Muz got the Paris Brest, and I ordered the choux vanille. Muz decided to go one step further and order the hot chocolate, too.

After one bite, I felt like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix:

The Paris-Brest was amazing. Not too chocolate-y, with the perfect amount of praline and hazelnut in the cream. And my vanilla dessert? AAAAh-mazing, with a generous amount of Tahitian vanilla speckling the cream.

The hot chocolate was super thick and not too sweet. I was way too full for my usual  “I just want to try it” gulp, so I took a few sips and waited for the sugar high to knock me to the ground.

We realized that there was lots more to try, and no more room in our stomachs. So we bought some caramels to go, with the stern warning from the shopkeeper that they would only be good for a day or two. Not to worry: at 110 euros per kilo, we were only buying a few of them. We savored the last caramel on our last day and realized it was just like our Paris trip: short-lived, sweet, and worth every calorie. So if you only have an hour in Paris, check out Jacques Genin. You may have to run for three hours to work it off, but it’s worth it.

Fake it ’til you make it: an American ajvar experience

Longtime readers already know about my love for ajvar, so you may not be surprised to learn that one of my most treasured departing gifts was a jar of the ruby goodness from my friend Anja. “My grandmother makes the best ajvar,” she said. “I hope you like it.”

“I love it already,” I said. I eyed the big glass jar and felt my mouth water a little. “I’ll bring it back to America and eat it when I’m homesick for Belgrade.” I imagined gently packing the jar in Politika newspapers and taping it in a Pekara Aca bag to make sure it would be with me on a cold, gray day in America.

Instead, Muz and I ate it two days later. All of it.

Readers, I couldn’t help it. I thought, “I should eat this with Serbian bread. I should enjoy this with Zlatiborski prsut and young cheese. What if the jar broke on the way over? What if–GASP–Muz ate all of it first?” (He does this. Frequently.)

Any Serbian lady over the age of 40 would just look at me and say, “RHOB, make your own ajvar!” But that seems…really hard. And time consuming. And I don’t know where to get roga peppers. So imagine my happy surprise to see this at a Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago: fake ajvar!

Sure, it says “Red Pepper Spread,” but we all know that just means, “ajvar for people who don’t know what ajvar is.” The ingredients were the same. The color….ok, the color was not the same, but I could get past that. When I was ready to try it, I had to force myself to spread it on bread and not eat it straight out of the jar. I popped the bread in my mouth and…immediately frowned.

It’s bad, readers. There’s no other way to phrase it. If you’ve never had ajvar it’s fine, but it lacks the smokiness and velvety texture I was used to. It had a slightly bitter aftertaste that (I think) was due to either using bell peppers or not skinning the peppers properly. Balkan bake (grandmothers) will not be happy about this. And I was increasingly disturbed by the neon orange color. Trader Joe’s “fake ajvar” is, well, fakakta.

Which leads me to a new quest for roga peppers in the D.C. area and a time machine. Or a Serbian grandmother looking to adopt. Any ideas?

You can take the girl out of Chipotle, but you can’t take Chipotle out of the girl: American expats and Mexican food


Two years ago, I briefly joined friends who were taking a year-long trip around the world. We met in Thailand while they were eight months into their adventure. Over Chang beer and fiery noodles, I asked them what they missed about America.

I thought they would say “knowing the language,” “fabric softener,” or “hot showers and air conditioning.” The answer was none of the above. They missed Mexican food.

Now that I have an extra appreciation for how our friends felt, I’m even happier that we tried Mexican food in Thailand. It was a mad experiment in international food relations. Our burrito was more of a spring roll, with thoughtfully applied ketchup in place of salsa. Mexican food in Siem Reap, Cambodia was a little better.  The “guacamole” was bright green and appeared to be made of peas, but at least the consistency was right. The chips were made of crispy rice paper and the salsa was edible. I watched my friends savor each bite and thought, these poor souls. They simply don’t remember what it tastes like.

Mexican food is a uniquely American experience. You’d think it would be a uniquely Mexican experience, but no. Unless you live in Texas, the Southwest, or Southern California, “Mexican food” is a bizarre hybrid of American, Latin American, Caribbean and South American cuisine. It’s massive burritos with sour cream AND guacamole, margaritas from a machine, Cuban black beans, and deep-fried taco bowls with salad inside (you know, so it’s healthy). It’s kind of disgusting, and I totally miss it.

This year, I can relate to my worldly friends more than ever. Belgrade doesn’t really do Mexican food. Serbians are generally not fond of anything spicy. Mexican ingredients are rarer than an empty seat on the 41 bus line. Black beans? Forget it. Hot sauce? Ha! Cilantro is the Bigfoot of Belgrade markets–people claim they’ve seen it, but they can’t remember where. If they do find it, they paid a huge price and then never see it again. Maybe that’s how I should have spent my time here–forming a black market for cilantro and picante sauce.

There are Mexican restaurants in Belgrade–just not any good ones. Beans are canned and bland. phyllo dough is used instead of tortillas. Some grocery stores do sell flour tortillas (how are Serbians using these?) so at least I can make my own fajitas and tacos. It’s not quite the same.

Fortunately, we found authentic American-Mexican food at Iguana. Unfortunately, Iguana is in…Budapest. Yes, that’s three hours away, but we travel there pretty frequently and three hours is a lot closer than Texas. When the craving gets too bad, Muz and I count down the days until we’re back in Budapest so we can get the best quesadillas this side of the Atlantic. On our last visit, we even ordered jalepeno poppers.

I wouldn’t order these in the States if you paid me, but here they were good. Actual jalepenos, lightly battered, served with a local cheese that was a better replacement for cheddar and sour cream. What’s that on the side? Why, it’s a Michelada: a delicious concoction of lime juice and beer with a salt rim. Technically there should be some tomato juice too, but I’m not complaining.

We’ve been to Iguana five or six times this year, and it never failed to make us happy. It’s a little slice of home in a part of the world where “run for the border” has an entirely different connotation. But now that we’re leaving, I can’t help but wonder if I even remember what it should taste like. I guess I’ll find out soon.