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Yes in my back yard

There’s a tradition in Skopje that is dying out. There are probably lots of these, but this particular one speaks to the stomach. For the last 30 years, Vase (pronounced Vassy) has had a restaurant in his back yard. There are about half a dozen tables and some inside, too. There’s no menu. No choice. You get whatever it is he has decided to cook that day. He’s not listed in any tour guide. He doesn’t have an online presence. And the only way to find him is to know someone who knows someone who knows someone. I know someone.

IMG_2047 (800x600)One of very few Macedonians in an Albanian part of town, Vase reigns supreme. Cigarette hanging from his mouth, he trades jibes with this guests, most of whom seem to be quite familiar with this attitude – and some seem to be in better favour than others. You can tell by who gets the last of this season’s kajmak cheese. We were honoured. When one young girl asked for French fries, he told her that she needed a prescription. The only choice you have is to eat or not to eat.

IMG_2044 (800x382)Vase buys all his veg localIMG_2045 (800x600)ly and specialises in what’s in season. It’s been a while since I had an onion that was really, well, oniony. The beets and radishes, the pickled cabbage, the fried courgettes, and grilled peppers – all to die for. As for the kajmak…. well… I IMG_2046 (800x600)was in heaven.

And then the meat came – randomly. Chicken, pork, and sausage, and liver that was probably the best I’ve had in years. The wine was unpretentious and local, too. There was no pressure to go anywhere, no pressure to do anything buIMG_2048 (600x800)t eat and enjoy. I had my doubts that we would do it justice and, truth be told, wasn’t looking forward to Vase’s reaction if we didn’t clear our plates. But I needn’t have worried.

There are only two such places left in Skopje. Vase’s kids are not interested in carrying on the family business. It will die with him. Not because someone else couldn’t do the job or cook the food or serve it up, but because he is the restaurant. People come to see him – to talk to him – to eat whatever it is he’s cooked that day. You never know who might be at the table beside you. It’s classless and it’s fun. And he runs it his way. When the food runs out, he closes up. If you don’t like it, you leave. And if Vase doesn’t like the look of you, you won’t get a table. For him, it’s not a business. It’s a vocation, a way of life. So best find someone in the know.

 

 

 

 

Not all schnitzel and sausage

When I pitch Vienna against Budapest or even Bratislava, it always comes in third. I’ve never taken to the city – and I have no idea why. It seems a little sterile and old-fashioned, without a sense of humour. It seems to take itself far too seriously. Yes, it has some magnificent buildings and some spectacular museums and galleries. And yes, it’s the home of sacher torte, that delicious chocolate cake immortalised by Franz Sacher in 1832 (interestingly, he trained first in Bratislava and then in Budapest, before ending up in Vienna). And yes, it has some great schnitzel and sausage, but aside from all this, there has always been something missing…for me. Vienna was just a little too predictable.

But this time around, I was taken to the Naschmarkt and was suitably impressed. Aside from the usual fare of fresh fruit, veg, and flowers, this market does a roaring trade in fresh fish and lamb. And lamb to die for. Many many years ago, while in the village butchers with my mother, I laughed at the conversation she had with the butcher in which both were rhapsodising about a leg of lamb. For the life of me, I failed to see how anyone could be so taken with a piece of meat. Then, in Anchorage, Alaska,  I found a real butchers with real cuts of meat. When I stopped to admire a rack of lamb on display, he quickly nipped in the back and brought me out the finest leg I’d seen in years. It had happened – I’d turned into my mother. The same happened on Thursday in Vienna as I ogled the cutlets, the shoulders, the racks, and the legs of lamb and wondered for the umpteenth time why Budapest’s markets are practically lamb-less. I can see me taking the train to Vienna on a lamb spree someday soon.

The market is truly cosmopolitan and perhaps for the first time I glimpsed the city’s multicultural ethnicity. Vendors from all over the world plied their trade in prepared food and ingredients. Had I not been so focused on schnitzel for dinner, I could easily have lost myself in the Indonesian food on offer. On Saturday, the market extends to include a flea market – enough in itself to warrant a return journey. But perhaps one of the most exciting finds of all was an international discount bookshop with a huge variety of English books on sale. To be able to sample new authors without paying an arm and a leg for the experience is a very underrated pleasure. I browsed, I bought, and I went back for seconds.