Among my collection of recipe books is a special one with a plain, blue cover. It’s filled as much with unforgettable moments as it is with edible delights. Whenever I flick through its pages, I find myself back in 1986. I’m 17 and living with a family in Belgrade in what is now Serbia. At that time, it was the capital of the ‘non-aligned socialist republic’ of Yugoslavia: neither Western nor fully behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.
My strongest memory is of sitting at the table in the hallway that doubled as a dining room in my host family’s flat, noting down recipes in my notebook. Most were ones my host mother, Marija, taught me to cook. We had little shared language and cookery was an activity we could do together without words. Weighing, chopping, stirring, and rolling could all be done by watching or gesturing to each other.
I wrote down some of the recipes in English, others in Serbo-Croatian, occasionally a mix of the two. Many only detail rough quantities: three cups of flour, two cups of sugar, one of oil and large amounts of eggs (10 or 12 is not unusual). There are smudges and stains showing where ingredients strayed onto the page.
Marija’s cooking was different from what I knew from home, restricted by shortages imposed by a communist state. Food was strictly seasonal and local. Special dishes stood out because they were a rare treat.
On birthdays and important holidays, Marija would spend hours making cakes or savoury bakes from scratch. Filo-pastry filled with spicy ground meat or salty cheese; a strawberry cake with whipped cream that will forever be the best I’ve tasted; and plum dumplings so juicy that they burst in my mouth at first bite.
I still make these dishes, and just looking at the list of ingredients sends me back to a specific moment in time. The little chocolate, cream-filled išleri biscuits Marija made for my 18th birthday. The cinnamon-scented apple cake she baked to celebrate her son’s return from military service. The simple delight of a pile of pancakes filled with rosehip jam on a cold winter’s night.
I treasure my recipe book for many reasons – for the memories it contains and the fact that, woven into every page, are recipes for a good life as well as fabulous food.
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