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.
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.