The Nemanjić Dynasty Tree
Chicken breasts are mildly salted and generously rubbed with honey. Leave it to rest for two hours to chill. Roll in wheat flour and fry in pork fat until golden. Remove meat from the pan, pour in white wine, minced garlic and a little dried thyme. Pour this sauce over the meat.
This is a recipe from 1196. To be more precise, that year it was served on the court of Stefan Prvovenčani. This is one of the oldest known dishes served on the courts of the Nemanjić dynasty. This, and a few other recipes were rediscovered by collaborators of a Belgrade Production House Vertikal Media. They managed to gather plenty of material about medieval Serbian cuisine, with the help of culinary experts, professors, historians and some freelance researchers.
I met with Danilo.Vučinić, the mastermind and the initiator of the project and in a pleasant informal interview/meeting, in one of the Belgrade’s finest seafood restaurants Bastion 2 (Beograd, Braće Ribnikar 40), he was kind to share parts of the story he is working on. It all started as a research of eating culture during the time of the Nemanjić dynasty, but the subject appeared to be much larger than Danilo.Vučinić thought and gave extentive amount of material. The 15 year old adventure of this research will be crowned next year in October with the monumental book about Serbian history through gastronomy, including not only the meals of the Nemanjić dynasty, but also Obrenović and Karađorđević dynasties.
What I wanted to know was how do they know the recipes? Where did they find them? The man we have to thank for the most of the material is Theodore Metochites, a Byzantine statesman, author, gentleman philosopher, and patron of the arts. He visited Serbia five times and well documented about wealth and glory he witnessed on king Milutin’s court.
Although, the bloom of culinary art in Europe is considered to be during the time of the Renaissance, Serbia of that time can not laud that it followed it’s trail. This is mainly because the fact that it was the Ottoman empire vasal state during that time. But, during the reign of the Nemanjić dynasty, starting with kings Radoslav and Milutin, continuing during the reign of emperor Dušan “the Mighty”, to the last Uroš “The Weak”, culinary art was shoulder to European, and in some segments way ahead many European countries.
The story begins with Stefan Nemanja. Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa and his 100,000 men army were hosted by the Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja in Niš, during the Third Crusade, in late July, 1189. Diplomatic agreement was signed, a “friendship” between the two countries and Stefan Nemanja signed his name in Cyrillic while Barbarossa could only manage a thumbprint. Stefan Nemanja arranged a dinner in Barbarossa’s honor. And as Theodore Metochites wrote down Barbarossa said: “Serbian people are the most hospitable people in the world and that is why they should not be harmed by any means“. It was a 21 course meal, with fish, game and seal specialties. Seals?! In Serbia in the XII century?! This was a mystery for Danilo.Vučinić for many years, until he learned of the Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus). Pieces fit perfectly!
The answer to the question what was actually eaten in Serbia of that time, we must look into two directions: what did the court and nobles eat, and what the common people. On the court and in the houses of the nobles there were plenty of game meat, fish, all kinds of meats, especially ram, dried meat and bacon. Meals and eating were very important on the court. Future Tzar Lazar took care about royal dining during reigns of emperor Dušan and Uroš.
In that time fish, octopus, salted caviar were brought from Adriatic sea coast. The Nemanjić dynasty arranged that the fish is brought from Zeta to the monasteries of Studenica, Banjska, Dečani, Saint Archangels Monastery. King Vladislav gave Mileševa monastery hunting grounds in Bistrica, and Hilandar was delivered octopus, polyps and sea fish in gelatin during Great Lent. Despot Uglješa send gifts of shellfish, calamari, fish to the Monastery Saint Atanasija. From Bar they brought olive oil, and sea salt from Dubrovnik, Kotor and Bojana. After emperor Dušan’s conquering, Serbs had their salt mines in Albania and Greece. Later, salt was brought from Ugarska and Vlaška. A great warehouse of salt was in Bovan near Aleksinac, from where Tzarica Milica, wife of Tzar Lazar gave salt to the Monastery Saint Panteleimon. along with the usual herbs, such as thyme, yarrow and mint, from the coast arrived and saffron, cinnamon, anise and nutmeg.
Emperor’s Dušan Serbia
Even the ways to prepare the food were specific. For example, rumen was used for cooking – it was washed, then filled with chopped meat and vegetables and then filled with water. Then tied and placed in hot live coals or on top of the fire place. Food is prepared when 3/4 of water evaporates. All the time, no mater how much the rumen is exposed to the fire, it won’t burn.
Another way to cook was to put hot stones into milk or vegetables. In some parts of Lika and Kordun this way of cooking is still present. Roasted meat was prepared like this – slaughtered animal, along with the skin and fleece, was covered with loam (feather animals with mud) and then put into live coal ash. After the soil armor was broken, the skin would fall off with it and the meat was clean and incredibly tasty. To this day in some parts of Balkans this way of roasting is still used.
Variety of drinks was poor. Main drink was Medovača, rakija made of honey, medovina, wine made of honey was present until the end of 15th century. Domestic beer was known as “alovina” in Eastern Serbia.
Thanks to the Nemanjić dynasty wine making and grape production were highly developed. Even Stefan Prvovenčani added the law which prohibited adding water into the wine. Emperor Dušan had a big wine cellar near Prizren, and most of the monasteries cultivated grapes for wine. During Tzar Lazar’s reign, Kruševac became the center of wine industry, while Stefan Lazarević and Đurađ Branković spread vineyards around Smederevo, Vršac and Fruška Gora.
Recipes come to life
My next stop was restaurant Vidovdan. One of the Belgrade’s finest ethno restaurants, that exists since 1988. They serve Serbian national specialties, such as: ćevapčići, lamb and young beef in sač, pogača, Karađorđe’s steak. This is an ideal place to try Serbian national cuisine and accompany it with a range of artisan wines. Their adress is: Husinskih rudara 17, Karaburma, Beograd, telephone: +381112757868.
Dinig in a cosy athmospere of a Serbian log cabin,
with the most pleasant staff.
Wine in Vidovdan, I tasted wine “Savković”
For this special occasion, they were kind to make us a three course meal from the courts of the Nemanjić dynasty.
Our 3 course Medieval meal and chef Živana who revived the meals.
Beef tenderloin: Cut beef steaks into bite sized pieces and soak into rasol (liquid from sauerkraut) and leave it in there for a whole day and night. Then, take them from rasol, dry with a towel and rub with garlic and olive oil. Grill. Meanwhile, make sauce from red wine, mushrooms and blackberries. Thicken with wheat flour. This recipe is from 1290.
Pork shanks: Pork shanks are seasoned with mint, black pepper seeds and white wine. They are served with peeled apples baked in vinegar. Recipe from 1389.
Prunes: Soak prunes into water until they are soft, dry them and remove the seeds and place a piece of walnut and a piece of goat cheese in the place of seeds. Wrap with thin strips of bacon and grill. This was usually served with slices of wheat or rye bread. This recipe is from 1393.
Next, I decided to make some of the meals myself. The one from the begining of the story, and two more.
Quails: Quails are stuffed with mass made of wheat, kajmak and diced porcini mushrooms. They are baked and when they’re nearly done, we pour over eggs beaten with soured milk and finish baking. They were considered delicates and were served with red wine with ice.
Obtaining quails was an adventure for itself. After days and days of futile quest for them, I convinced a guy from the local farmer market to give me the phone number of his friend who breeds them and sells their eggs. Finally, they arrived for me from Stara Pazova.
Wild boar: A dish from 1197. made with wild boar meat, garlic, honey, red wine, blackberries, white grapes.
There is this, very dear to Serbian people, anecdote about the forks. It is said that on Serbian court were eating with golden forks while whole Europe ate with their fingers, and it is associated with the reign of Milutin. The truth is, on Milutin’s court was eaten from silver dishes in special occasions, but the golden fork is actually from the time of emperor Dušan. And how comes that the fork appeared in Serbia before in many other European countries, apart from Italy? The answer lays in the Catholic church proclamation that the fork is “a sinful immorality” or “the tool of the Devil”. The use of it was allowed at the end of 15th century. Serbia was not affected as it was an orthodox country.
I realize that with this story we only scratched the surface of the bigger one. And I am eagerly anticipating for the finished version of the book. And I know that Danilo.Vučinić will discover more to this story, as he will, next summer, with the blessing of Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Coast lands Amfilohije Radović, visit certain monastery’s libraries and go through the ancient scripts.
Resources: Wikipedia’s history of Serbian medieval state, article “Carska trpeza Nemanjića” by Momir Čabarkapa.
Thank you: Danilo.Vučinić, FoodBuzz, Mateja for helping me eat all the food in Vidovdan :), Vojislav Ćirić and restaurant Vidovdan, News Company “Novosti”, Vertical Media Production House, Vlada and Miroslav from Stara Pazova.