An insight into Montenegrins
It’s all very well following the old adage “When in Rome…” but in order to do so, you need some insight into the locals. What do they eat & drink? What occupies their time? What are the traditions and ways of the Montenegrins? In short, who are these people?
The men are invariably called Dragan, Slobodan or Nikola – most are dark and handsome and plenty are tall (it’s no co-incidence that one of the national sports is basketball!). Common names for the women include Gordana (Goca), Dragana and Jelena. The latter means ‘deer’ in local language – so aptly named, as they are often thin and graceful, all legs and big eyes. Overall, in my experience, they are a beautiful race, inside and out.
They can sometimes come across as brusque and sound aggressive – a local friend of mine tells a wonderful story of bringing her English friend to Montenegro for the first time and as she chatted to the taxi driver on the journey from the airport, her mate sat transfixed and anxious, thinking there was an argument ensuing as the tone seemed harsh, the cadence too passionate and the volume too loud for ‘normal’ conversation! But in fact, they are generally very friendly, welcoming and generous souls.
Their primary way of showing hospitality is to lay on food and drink in ridiculous proportions – dried figs arranged on platters, nuts, olives, slices of cheese and meat to be washed down with tea (homemade mint or other herbs), coffee (usually Turkish style, strong and black with a thick sediment) or homemade ‘sok’ or syrups (sage-flower and elderflower cordials are especially delicious and refreshing). The ordinary folk are pretty poor by Western standards but will not scrimp on making a guest feel properly welcome. This will often include getting out the homemade ‘rakija’ – the generic term for the local hooch, distilled from pretty much anything: left-over grapes provides ‘loza’ (the most common ‘fire-water’), ‘slivovic is made from plums and my two favourites are ‘viljamovka’ make from pears and ‘dunjevaca’ made from the fruit of the quince tree.
In the same way that the English will respond to most situations by saying: “Sit down dear and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea”, so the Montenegrins will pour a shot of loza: to calm nerves, celebrate anything and everything or simply to get one kick-started on a slow morning! Take my advice and sip it. The flavour is normally delicious once the burning sensation has faded and if you neck it, you’ll miss this. But more importantly, an empty glass will quickly be re-filled and it’s sheer bad manners not to drink!
By the way, if you’re a big fan of English tea though, I suggest you bring your own as the local black tea (crnji or ruški caj) is a poor substitute for a well-brewed Yorkshire Tea.
The food in Montenegro is simple but delicious. Summer fare is predominantly grilled meat or fish with salad and chips, accompanied by lots of fresh, fluffy bread. You’ll almost always find a Njeguši steak on the menu and this is worth trying at least once. It’s a pork fillet, stuffed or sometimes just piled high with, cheese & ‘prsut’ (the local equivalent to prosciutto, a cured and smoked ham). Njegoš is the famous poet and scholar, adored and lauded in the land, laid to rest in the famous mausoleum in Lovcen National Park and this dish is named after him.
Although the summer here is wonderful, I also recommend visiting in the Autumn and Spring, not only because it’s quieter, with less tourists and the cooler temperatures (but still mostly sunny weather) are more conducive to exploring this small but stunning country, but also because the cuisine outside of the summer season includes such delights as: ‘sarma’ (minced, spiced meat & rice wrapped in cabbage leaves and served in a rich sauce), ‘gulaš (the local version of the Hungarian goulash stew) and ‘pasulj’ (slow cooked beans in a rich tomato sauce, beside which Heinz 57 varieties pales into insignificance).
There’s one more thing to say about the food – a staple ingredient here is cabbage. They preserve it in salted water, pickle it in oil and vinegar, serve it shredded as salad, make soup from it and stuff peppers with it. They grow fine tasting cabbage in these parts and I’m totally hooked on making the local sauerkraut (which doesn’t taste anywhere near as acidic as versions I’ve tasted in Germany). Interestingly, it turns out that cabbage has mildly sedative properties which might explain why folk are so wonderfully chilled out over here!
More to come on the cultural quirks of these fine people in the following weeks. If there are any specific questions you have about understanding the Montenegrins and fitting right in, please post them as comments.