everyone always assumes that the yugo food was the standard eastern european fare: grey meat, lots of potatoes, cabbage and beetroot. the reality is different: bosnian food in particular has more in common with what you find in turkey than in krakow or bratislava.
the fact that bosnia was under turkish rule for half a millennium is the obvious reason for this. they left their legacy in every aspect of life: food, language, architecture, mentality and anything else you can think of.
but considering where bosnia is, they were never going to have it easy: their food jostled for position with the cuisine of the austro-hungarian empire. to this day, in any half-decent patisserie in sarajevo you will find both the sweet, syrupy concoctions of the middle east and north africa (baklava, kadaif, tulumbas - universally recognised from aswan to mostar) to the tortes and strudels more commonly found in viennese coffee houses.
climate is the other reason. although bosnia is mountainous, with the exception of the fertile plains of the north, it has a proper continental climate. this means summers hot enough and long enough to grow decent fruit and veg.
for some reason, veg doesn’t feature much in my mind’s eye. all i can see is fruit: tiny wild strawberries, bought from equally tiny mountain women in headscarves and carried home from the market as delicately as you would a dozen eggs to avoid bruising; ripe plums and damsons in colours from apply green to deep, velvety purple of a fresh bruise; small gnarly apples, each with a worm inside. there were also soft, overripe green figs (the kind that is almost untransportable which is presumably why you hardly ever see them here) and cherries brought in small quantities from places like mostar and trebinje, and you could practically smell the sea and sun on them.
there were vegetables as well, of course. the very first greens after the winter warranted a great deal of excitement, and rolled-up filo pies would suddenly feature the very dark green metallic leaves of spinach or swiss chard. the excitement would fade by the end of summer – in fact, as kids, we used to dread the detour to outside markets to pick up massive bags (made of red netting) full of peppers, aubergines or marrows. the reason for such huge quantities was that this was the time to convert the glut into something to be enjoyed during the winter. the trip to the market involved a lot of haggling and tutting and shaking of heads, before money was exchanged and bags loaded in the back of our zastava. i don’t know if it is my imagination but those peasants with big, fat bags of produce were also themselves bigger and fatter than their mountain counterparts who would sell bitter greens or bilberries earlier in the summer.
anyway, this is all a long-winded way of saying we didn’t eat a great deal of beetroot. in fact, i cannot recall a single instance where we consumed it as a vegetable. my memory is probably playing tricks on me but i only even remember dad juicing beetroots in one of his concoctions that was meant to ‘cleanse the blood’ when you were a bit run down or had a cold: it was beetroot, apple and orange and tasted of muddy fields and sweetness. it always makes me smile when i see that kind of stuff sold in health food shops now.
beetroot soup is a recipe for beetroot haters, in my opinion. for some reason, it comes out less earthy than eating beetroot either raw or roasted, which is what i would normally do. everyone seems to enjoy it.
what vegetables you use as a base is up to you – i don’t think there is any need to be prescriptive when it comes to soups – but you do need decent stock. i don't mean to be a food ponce but it makes all the difference - it's the soul of the soup. mine was the leftover roast chicken stock, which had boiled down to almost jelly-like consistency. i would also say don’t skip the creme fraiche at the end – the fat adds that little bit of extra creaminess but, more importantly, the slightly sour note balances out all that sweetness.
4-5 large beets, scrubbed (they always say that in recipes but i rarely scrub because the skin gets peeled off)
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1-2 sticks of celery, chopped
1 medium leek, chopped
2 pints chicken stock
100ml creme fraiche
a splash balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
preheat the oven to 200C.
make a large parcel from some tin foil – i tend to tear off a big piece, fold it in half, then seal the edges by pleating the foil a couple of times on three sides. you will be left with a tinfoil bag of sorts. put it in a roasting dish and put all the beetroots, whole and unpeeled, in the bag. add a splash of vinegar, a splash of water and a good glug of oil, plus some seasoning. seal the last edge of the parcel and place the tray in the oven to roast. it will take at least an hour and in reality more like two. the beetroot should be soft when pierced with a knife but don’t worry about it too much – you can always cook it in the soup for a bit longer (and it's no big deal even if it's a bit raw).
when the beetroot is cooked, take it out of the oven and leave to cool. peel off the skin – either with your fingers or the potato peeler. chop the roots roughly into quarters.
now, in a big pan, fry the vegetables gently. don’t brown them – just allow them to become translucent and soft. this will take ten or so minutes so be patient. add the chopped beetroot, let it cook for a couple of minutes, and top with the chicken stock. cook for another 5-10 minutes until all the vegetables are cooked through.
blend the soup in batches and return to the pan. check the seasoning – it does need salt but the stock i use is normally salty which is why i don’t go crazy before it’s all amalgamated.
serve in bowls, with a dollop of creme fraiche and some more black pepper ground on top.