Written by Roger Allen
War zones don’t normally spring to mind when it comes to great food. But during the Bosnian conflict that raged at the heart of Europe in 1993-1995 I ate some of the best Balkan food on offer.
My travelling companion was Ted Oliver, a great reporter from Belfast. Not only was he a top journalist, he was my best mate. After leaving London our journey into the dark heart of Bosnia started in the seaside town of Split in Croatia.
At the time it was empty of western tourists. War with Serbia had thrown it into recession and the birthing pains of post-Communist country were evidenced by the run down airport and factories standing empty. The old town of Split was still open trying to ply its trade as a tourist town. It was there where we found some of the best seafood we’ve ever tasted.
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In a basement restaurant just off the picturesque harbour we ate huge Mediterranean prawns cooked over the open fire in the corner of the dining room.
“How many you like?” asked the portly waiter “They all fresh, we do in garlic oil and lots of lemon juice, perfecto.”
He sold us ten, five each. Once we’d polished them off we had the seafood pasta – large pieces of white firm fish with clams in a garlicy sauce spooned over spaghetti, a basket of fresh bread and a bottle of local dry white wine….it was heaven.
From heaven it was straight to hell.
The day after our fish feast we joined a UN convoy into Bosnia. The British sergeant made it clear that if we were stopped at a checkpoint and our vehicle was pulled over the three-mile convoy couldn’t stop or help us and we would be on our own.
I drove sticking so close to the lorry in front that it would have been hard for any of the drunken soldiers manning the roadblocks to see us coming on this terrifying journey out of Croatia over the mountain road that the Royal Engineers had carved out and down onto the flat plains with towns of Prozor and Gorny Vackufu full of renegade bands of soldiers watching the British army arrive with their tanks and artillery. You could almost taste the hatred.
Having survived no less than 14 bum-clenching check points we arrive in the town of Vitez. The army had set up its HQ in an abandoned school. But the Press had to find our own place to lay our heads.
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Home for the next three weeks was a former holiday chalet owned and run by Victoria, a stout woman whose husband was away fighting at the front. It was full of TV crews and reporters from all over Europe. Ted and my were billeted in a room with a double bed. We had to share the double bed.
Houses burning in the night across the fields full of buttercups and cowslip was a surreal image. In the morning it was the army’s job to go and look at what had happened. We were pooled into groups to travel with the soldiers in armoured troop carriers.
Arriving on a bright April morning in a tranquil village the full horror of what had happened in the night exposed itself.
One hundred and nine dead bodies lay burned, shot, left in basements, sprawled in the streets and on the doorsteps of houses. The carnage had taken just 90 minutes; Bosnian Croats had massacred the Bosnian Muslims of the village of Ahmici.
A quiet community on a lush hillside, the pink blossom was out on the cherry trees as the soldiers picked their way through the massacre site.
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When we had arrived at Victoria’s house a large pig was happy snuffling around in the dirt at the back of the chalet. After a long day out with the army we, Ted and I, arrived back to find the pig gone.
“Where’s the pig?” asked Ted.
“Gone, dead,” said Victoria smiling.
The village postman had a side-line of being a butcher. He’d come around earlier in the day with a large set of knives.
Over the course of the next few days we feasted of pork in all shapes and sizes. Chops, loin, shoulder, sausages – anything that could be made from the pig. An open air grill had been set up in front of the house and smoke billowed up most of the day.
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Later that night Victoria cooked a shoulder of the pig, roasted in an oven set up outside fuelled by wood. By the time the meat arrived at the the table it was cooked to perfection with soft fat that tasted like heaven and succulent meat that had been cooked slowly for a long time. She had also made a large pan of potatoes fried in some of the pig fat along with garlic and red onions. While the meat was resting on a table Victoria had slipped a tray of the last of the plum harvest into the makeshift oven.
She produced a meal from everything that had been bred or grown in the war-torn village. Another by-product of the plums was of course the famous – or infamous -Slivovitz, the fruit brandy of the Balkans. A large plastic bottle had been plonked in the middle of the table almost like a challenge, and challenge it we did.
The pork, potatoes, the soft juicy plums made for an unforgettable meal in an unforgettable setting. As the sun went down the crackle of gunfire drifted across the meadow, the darker it became the more we could see the fires burning in houses a few miles away. The only thing that helped was the second bottle of the local grog.
After weeks of lorry bombs, massacres, death and the smell of burning it was time to return to Split. Before we went there was one last thing to do …. Rescue a bear!
The poor chap had been abandoned at a hotel on the front line, trapped in his cage and left for dead. Ted and I talked the army into mounting a rescue. Three tanks and a pretty girl for the signals corps arrived at the the cage, the girl sprang forward with some burgers from the NAFFI and an industrial size jar of honey.
“He’ll love that” said the girl as she thrust it through the bars, yes he certainly did. So much so that he sniffed it then proceed to have sex with the jar.
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It was a convoy three miles long that we joined for the return journey. Our jeep was tucked in behind a flatbed lorry with a large cage containing the liberated bear. The Daily Mail was also on the trip back to the real world. Chief reporter Dave Williams and photographer Jenny Goodall followed us. As soon as we crossed the border into Croatia we waved goodbye to the army and the bear.
We pulled up at the first lamb restaurant beside the road where two lambs turned slowly on a spit above a wood fire.
The four of us sat down to feast on large chunks of piping hot lamb, boiled potatoes and spring onions the size of leeks. Ice cold beer arrived, we sat in the sun thinking we were on holiday.
Thirty miles away was a war raging at the heart of Europe.