March 26, 2010

Stuffed and Climbing Kotor

Travelling time from Dubrovnik (Croatia) to Budva (Montenegro)took four hours. The coastal drive was picturesque enough with the rocky surrounds, but I found the Adriatic waters most captivating. It was a different blue to the blue waters I'm familiar with in Australia. More turquoise perhaps. Very alluring.

Our bus was full. Mitch and I had to sit right down the back. God knows why they gave us seat numbers. Every time we embarked, our seats were taken, so it was a case of grab what you can find. I recall a Montenegrin lad, sitting next to us who slept the whole way, except when prodded for his passport at the borders. I recall a British "bunch" yakking, an American "bunch" yakking louder, a quiet Scottish fellow with his New Zealand girlfriend and a handsome Swedish couple arguing with the driver about being "ripped off".

The border crossing to get into Montenegro was lengthy. The guards collected everyone's passports and left. We waited nervously. I didn't like my passport taken away. Twenty minutes later they returned and handed them back to us casting serious, steely-eyed faces. A tad intimidating.

Finally as the bus went underway, Mitch and I looked at each other giggling like excited, little children. The anticipation was too much. We pressed our faces up against the window as if to feel and touch Montenegro. As the driver careened corners, we swayed from side to side remaining glued to the tall pencil thin pines, dishevelled dwellings, cosy coastal inlets and the growing mountains.

Several people got off at Herceg Novi and as we continued on, I noticed the humming of people had died right down. Anticipation infiltrated the air. It was as if something was looming. All of a sudden, fingers began pointing, backs straightened up, others leaned forwards or sideways claiming a section of window, cameras popped up followed by a flurry of flashes. Silence. Gasps. Awe. Monsterous mountains came out of nowhere. Shuddering and rubbing my goosebumps, I recall straining my neck trying to look up to take in nature's powerful display. It was hard to know where to look.

The Bay of Kotor was breathtaking. Tiny islands with stone houses, chapels and bobbing boats. The frighteningly dark mountains represented what was to become known as this country. Crna Gora or Montenegro (monte plus negro), translates into 'black mountain'.

Most people got off the bus at Kotor but we had to continue on to Budva to meet our relatives. I was immediately captivated. Hoards of people and tour groups cluttered around the entrance to the old fortress. This place wreaked of old and ancient. It took a month before I was to return to finally explore Kotor. I was dying to find out how it felt inside those walls but more than anything, I longed to climb the narrow, winding steps leading to the top of this mountain where it seemed one could touch the sky.

Finally, with the tourist season declared over, my three cousins, Mitch and I set off to Kotor on this hazy, misty of days. The sun struggled to make an appearance but the day for the most part remained misty. I now realise this helped with the "eeriness" that hung in the air. It was the perfect setting.

Entering the fortress.

Taking in the sites within the walled city.

Just like in Dubrovnik, people also lived in this fortress

Not many tourists. Thank the Lord.

Hello up there.

Last residence before we reach a man blocking our way.

As we part with two euros each, we are allowed to leave the walled city and commence the mountain climb.

Our first view as we begin our ascent.

It's too soon for a break.

A view of the walled city directly below.

Half way up and we were delighted to find this beautiful stone house nestled just outside the grounds of the fortress. We later learned someone was living there!!

My Mitch stepping outside the "allowed" path.

All clear. No enemy in sight.

A sense of doom washes over me. What awful things took place here.

It was here. I felt it. I actually felt the fear. I felt the thunder of feet running toward me. I looked at the rock wall that separated me from a dizzying drop. There was nowhere to go. It was either kill or be killed. It was truly terrifying. After wanting so much to feel the historical atmosphere of a place; here it was. Finally. And I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.

Come on Mitch. I want to leave.

My cousin Cedo precariously leaning to catch a glimpse of the bottom of the mountain. He goes on to tell of times where the Turks managed to overcome the Montenegrins, however there was no way the Montenegrins would surrender. This was due to the barbaric torture and treatment of those captured. So what did they do when they were losing and had no way out. They dived over the edge. I recall trembling in my sandals. I think I felt a little too much and it made me very emotional. Quietly, unlike many of my ancestors so long ago, I had the luxury of safely retreating down the mountain.

Back in the walled fortress I enter one of the many churches and thank god for my blessings and my freedom. More importantly I say a prayer for those who courageously built, defended, fought and died in this precious place. Kotor has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. I now know why.

It seems appropriate for me to share this recipe with you. For a couple of reasons. By the time I reached the peak of the mountain fortress, I was well and truly sweating and well....aaaaaaaaaaaaah.....I suppose "stuffed" to be honest. Many of the tourists only made it half way up. You must be joking! My will was way too strong. I travelled half way across the world and there was no way I wasn't going to drag myself up there if necessary. Thankfully we had water, otherwise I could be singing a different tune.

And of course this is my Montenegrin version of one of the Balkans most loved dishes. Punjene Paprike or Stuffed Peppers. It is as varied from region to region as are the pasta and the sauces of Italy. Everyone has their own way of preparing it. Everyone claims their way is the best. Here is mine. A heartier version I must say. Not as much sauce as some recipes. My version has originated from the northern end of the country, where the climate is colder and a heavier pepper was required to sustain workers and farmers through the day. I love eating them with salad. Or just as they are.

Stuffed Peppers

This is my regular recipe, however I made a huge batch hence the number in my pot.

6 red capsicums
1 large onion
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large or 2 small carrots, peeled & finely diced
2 small zucchini, finely diced
400gm mince, (traditionally lamb or pork) - I used beef
1 large bacon rasher, diced
A little under one cup of rice
1 x 400gm can tomatoes, pureed
1 potato, sliced (optional)
a teaspoon of Vegeta dissolved in a little hot water (traditional, but optional)
Salt, pepper, sweet paprika, sugar

Slice the tops off the capsicum. Take out the stem from the tops; reserve the flesh. Using a teaspoon, scoop away the white membrane along the inside of the capsicum. Turn upside down; tap gently with a spoon to remove any remaining seeds inside.

In a little olive oil saute garlic, onion, carrots and zucchini till softened. About 10mins; add two teaspoons of sugar. Fry for another minute.

In another pan; fry off the mince; drain excess oil; add bacon, 1 heaped teaspoon paprika and fry for only a minute. Set aside.

Add rice to the onion mixture and stir through; return to heat; add mince; stir through; add pureed tomatoes and some water; stir through.

Add salt, pepper, a little more sugar and some Vegeta if desired. I didn't add any Vegeta, but it is so traditional that I feel compelled to mention it. Remove from heat.

Begin to fill the capsicums with the mixture; not all the way to the top; the rice causes the mixture to expand. You should have mixture left after the capsicums have been stuffed. Spread the remaining mixture on the bottom of your pot or pan; place the stuffed capsicums on top. We do not want the capsicums to directly be touching the bottom of the pot. Arrange the capsicums so they are standing upright in your dish.

Take the capsicum tops with the stems removed and place them inbetween the standing capsicums to help support them and keep them in place during cooking. If you like you may also use thin potato slices.

Your pot should preferably have a very fitting lid. Over a low heat; cook the capsicums for between 40 and 50 minutes depending on the heat. Check for liquid absorption from time to time. You shouldn't need to add any more liquid as there should be a lot of steam circulating in the pot. If you have lots of liquid; take off the lid for the last ten minutes of cooking to help evaporate.

Your mixture on the bottom of the pan should have developed nice flavoursome browned bits throughout. Even a little crustiness is okay. Almost like the famous paella, the crusty rice on the bottom is the bit everyone fights over. It's gorgeous.

Serve immediately or keep for the following day when the flavours are soooo much better. The problem is when I smell them cooking, I can't wait till the next day. Hence the full pot; so I have some now and some tomorrow.

What a mamoth post this has been! I hate to say it again, but I feel truly stuffed.

Zdravo and Good Health.


  1. Stunning post! Love the image form inside that dark tower room and looking down over the cast and village!

  2. Amazing, all of it--the architecture, landscape, your experience, and your ancestors. So thought provoking. Beautiful peppers too. Thank you.

  3. Yay you made it to the mountain! :D

    Kotor is stunning. I have a friend who has family there, or in Budva, actually! She's half Croatian, and lives in Split.

    I really love your version of the peppers, with all the veg and the crusty rice at the bottom! like the Persian tah-dig too! It's actually rather differnt to mine, which I found interesting.

    Thanks for another beautiful read. Hugs!

  4. Thanks Sophie - I was particularly pleased with how that photo turned out. Kotor was a photographer's dream. It's nice to meet you.

    Oh Denise - your comment touched me no end. I'm so pleased you enjoyed it. It was quite an effort getting this post together, but it also brought it all back to me. I look at it now with all it's architecture and stunning backdrop and I have to pinch myself that I was actually there!

    Yay maninas - I did, I did. I would of crawled up there if I had to. It is stunning. You must go there sometime. Try to do it when there are the least number of tourists. You are much more likely to capture the awe-inspiring atmosphere.

    Yes, my version is quite different. But at the end of the day, a stuffed pepper is a stuffed pepper and I would eat any version placed in front of me. The flavoured brown bits of rice on the bottom are a real treat. They add such a depth of flavour. I hope you have a wonderful Easter!

  5. Mariana: Congrats on one year of blogging and a huge congrats on making such a beautiful and enjoyable post. It really is work and I loved every image. X

  6. You are such a doll Lucy. Thanks very much. This place was so meaningful and I'm thrilled to hear you enjoyed it.

  7. Oh darling, so much wonderfulness in one post. What an enormous treat to share this part of your journey with you - all this and peppers too. I love a stuffed vegetable more than sense. As soon as we have anything like summer (having frozen myself half to death at the Arsenal tonight, this seems a loooong way away) I will be trying this recipe. In the meantime, I'll just have to live sunny days and Mediterranean vegetables through you. No pressure.

    Lots of love, Dxx

  8. That was one beautiful journey ........absolutely loved it and then to finish with the lovely stuffed peppers mmmmmm.

    I know you told me a lot of this trip one time when we were together but it is so lovely in the written word and the photos just make it so special. Thankyou thankyou is all I can say just the best.

  9. Oh - haven't I left a comment yet? I've been meaning to...
    Beautiful post, Mariana - this is such a nice way to remember your trip and share it with us. I love that you're pairing these places with specific recipes - a chance for us to have a little taste of your journey ;)

  10. Oh my goodness - those images, those peppers! What a perfect dose of inspiration today! You really have a wonderful eye, I just love these photos.

  11. Oh Mariana Youre So funny! "I feel truly stuffed!" I LOL.

    This is a beautiful post.. the photos and the had me gasping and catching my breath at the view too. OhHh how lucky u are and your son too to get to travel like that! I can imagine the sea a turqoise blue...fascinating and that little stone house.....someone lives there? OH MY...

    tq Mariana for sharing such a lovely post and fotographs. I truly enjoyed it...and the peppers ..they look mouth watering...Im guessing youre a one fantastic cooking instructor??!!

  12. Debora - So very pleased you enjoyed this Mediterranean episode. Was that the gunners and Barcelona match? Wow if it was. The commentators here said that it was one of the best matches played in the last ten years. A masterful display in passing and all aspects of football. My Mitch agreed of course. But then he would, wouldn't he. Your sunny days are not too far away. What relief after your winter. Thanks sis.

    Gee Gayle - you know how to make a gal feel special. I put in quite an effort with this one. And it seems you can tell. The thanks is all mine dear friend. How nice to share one's special time with special people. Now. A question. Do you think Bruno would like stuffed peppers? After all, at least these have meat in them. I am still laughing about it. A cat loving roasted peppers. You wouldn't read about it. Hehe.

    Thanks Chelsea - thats okay. You got here eventually, and Im glad you did. You have been so wonderful and interested in my travel posts and I always appreciate you letting me know you dropped in. Anytime dear.

    What a gorgeous compliment Tumbleweed Woman. Having a photographic eye is something I well and truly feel needs developing but hey, I'll take the compliment. Thanks a bunch and it touched me to read you found this post inspirational. It was a special one for me, so thank you very much.

    Hello blogging pal. How wonderful to see you here. How is your timeout going? I hope you are finding inspiration in other areas of your life. Hope all is well. You were gasping at the view. How do you think I felt! I was quite terrified at times zurin, I kid you not. But yes, breathtaking too. Your kind comments are like the best reward for my efforts. Thanks so much zurin. Take care and don't come back to blogland until you are good and ready. Okay. xxxxx

  13. 'Twas indeed. Your Mitch is a very wise man. And what with another nail-biter on Saturday when Bendtner scored in the 95th minute, I had no voice left by Sunday, having cheered my head off twice in three days...

  14. My in-laws own a flat in Herceg Novi, we stayed there last year and visited Kotor. The scenery is stunning, the weather was marvellous (it was October) but the food uninspiring. I think most of the restaurants had closed for winter and my mother in law's cooking was fairly repetitive. I would have loved to have eaten something like these peppers over there.

  15. Oh it seems like ages that happened now Debora. How lucky were you to be there!! My dear Mitch can only dream about it. His backside was sore though, because he kept jumping up and down on the sofa. Oh the trials of supporters with you and your voice too. Hehehe.

    Oh so nice of you to drop in Sarah. There wouldn't be too many people in the world with in-laws that have a flat in Herceg Novi I would of thought. How fascinating. That place is so "old" and full of history too. I believe it is known for the number of steps that are built in the city. Really, you were there in October too. We were there in the first weekend of October. I wonder if I brushed shoulders with you. Isn't that amazing!!