Posts Tagged ‘Mediterranean’

‘Abroad’ Question of Taste

October 28, 2009

Okay, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to stop with the feature-length Montenegro narratives and get back to addressing the preeminent question that should be asked of any traveler-returned-home-at-last: So, how was the food?

Right? Because really, one of the best things about vacation – for me, at least – is that sum of moments spent savoring all manner of tongue-twisting specialties in a faraway scene that’s impossibly genuine and yet cinematic-surreal at once. You just can’t replicate that sense of place anywhere else. Proof: spend an afternoon under the shade of sprawling grape vines, flaking apart whole-grilled Mediterranean orada that’s basted in fresh-pressed olive oil – and then see if that frozen mahi in your freezer is ever quite the same (it’s not, by the way).

Perhaps even more significant to a wandering palate is the experience of travel nirvana: the personal-discovery high that occurs somewhere along the path of any globetrotting or cultural romp. Sometimes the feeling is subtle, reflective; others, so profound it can knock the breath right out of you. To a girl who experiences the world food-first, it was a simple forkful that reconciled a part of me that was, if not altogether lost, too often taken for granted. To this end, I’d like to make a sincere apology – ahem – to my tastebuds.

Okay, I know how bad this sounds. And I have to tell you I never thought I’d be in a place to make such an admission. I mean, it’s me. Nevertheless, the misdemeanor stands – enabled by a daily context of over-processed, hyper-sugary, crispy-fried, vitamin-enriched, triple-fortified. We add sodium to lunchmeat, corn syrup to whole wheat, periodic table elements to ice cream; God knows what manner of creation birthed Velveeta. Is it really any wonder that any of us are suffering from tastebud fatigue?

As Montenegrin tradition goes, there’s only one remedy – which is a good kick in the mouth (figuratively speaking, here, people).

Enter simple, fresh flavors that get back to basics and let each dish speak (or shout) for itself: Citrus! Olive! Basil! Thyme! And OMIGOSH is that real butter? No packaged posers, foreign additives or artificial con artists masquerading as anything remotely edible. And good lord, no 100-calorie-counts. Authenticity was never meant to have a shelf life.

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a typical evening table in Petrovac

What manner of eats are we talking about, you wonder? Among my personal favorites, for the epicurious:

  • Fresh, tart yogurt swirled with pomegranate seeds and honey
  • Dried figs strung together like sweet candied necklaces
  • Lamb shank roasted with rosemary and garlic
  • Peppery arugala tossed in olive oil and salt
  • Quick-fried sardines with squeeze of lemon (so long, french fries)

So yes – in a word, the food was fabulous. But more so, it brought back that sense of unspoiled delight so often disregarded for convenience and function. Eating is good, a truth that while generally acknowledged, may just be best unearthed in a warm, crowded kitchen with windows that open onto the sea.

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Montenegro, Finally

October 13, 2009

A full week after my return from abroad, and I’ve been mulling over this post for nearly as long, struggling to find a starting point that can in any small way set the stage or do justice to such an epic narrative. Officially, I’ve relented on the basis of professional bias. It’s also pretty much close to impossible.

Of course, it’s comforting to note that throughout a thousand-year history, visitors here have grappled with that same task, stumbling in the sheer wonder of unrestrained creation that greets them. In person, Montenegro is by far more breathtaking than initially assumed.

Limestone cliffs along the Adriatic Sea - Petrovac, Montenegro

Limestone cliffs along the Adriatic Sea - Petrovac

Almost any travel reference will quickly turn to a ubiquitous christening by the British poet Lord Byron – who, upon first visiting at the turn of the 19th century, observed the country as ‘the most beautiful encounter between land and sea.’  Raw and impossibly seductive, it’s not difficult to imagine how the Romantic figurehead would discover a muse in a place called Crna Gora – Black Mountain in Serbian. Though, even here, the poetic ideal waxes short of the tangible Montenegro – a vivid landscape so intensely realized, it literally charges upward out of the sea in fierce pursuit of itself.

Mountains over the town of Zabljak - Durmitor, Montenegro

Mountains over the town of Zabljak - Durmitor

Defining this ‘wild beauty’ by a single impression is somewhat of a challenge, if mainly for the simple fact that it’s just so unexpected. Montenegro has long remained a tucked-away corner of the Mediterranean region, overshadowed by the better-known Italy, Greece and glamourous coast of Croatia. Totally logical, since the entire country is roughly the size of Connecticut. Only in recent years, with its recognition by the EU as an independent state in 2006, has the country gained a foothold in mainstream consciousness (though navigating the locale via GoogleMaps remains questionable). For what it lacks in geographical area, however, Montenegro more than makes up in the stark contrast of its terrain.

Pastures below thirteenth-century Moraca monastery - Moraca River Valley

Pastures below thirteenth-century Moraca monastery - Moraca River Valley

The country’s entire population hovers somewhere around 700,000 – mostly concentrated in urban centers like its capital Podgorica and its seaside mega-resort towns – leaving a vast expanse of open landscape. Crisscross the country’s narrow, cliff-carved roads and you’ll feel your pulse incrementally quicken – for more reason than hairpin turns and treacherous shoulder drop-offs. Beyond idyllic villages and gracefully rolling plains along the southern Adriatic coast, Montenegro reveals its mountain namesake in triumphant herald. Ancient stone crags leapfrog taller one over the next, arching gracefully above glacier-marred ravines and crystalline lakes. Primeval conifer forests plunge into low-lying marshlands, jutting back again in slanted cuts of rockface just as suddenly.

The Money Shot - Bay of Kotor

The Book Cover View - Bay of Kotor

Intense? Um, yeah. Welcome to Montenegro.