Philip is waiting for me and as usual I am late. He has been on his feet all day lugging heavy samples around, never the less he is still smiling despite the bitter biting winds. An ex pat who now resides in sunny Skopje, Phil’s return to Blighty is to spread some Macedonian love in the form of his exciting venture, The Pelagonia Range.
‘How are you?’ I ask.
‘Great. We are just about to start the first of our 300 days of Macedonian sunshine.’
Macedonia, that little land locked territory at the core of the Balkans, captured my heart when I visited back in 2007. I can understand why Macedonia’s flag was a blazing sun whose rays stretched out like many warm welcoming arms. How I have longed to revisit ever since. I remember Skopje as a vibrant city cradled by lush green mountains. People were friendly there; hospitable and kind. There was a buzz of life and a spiced heat which floated in the air. I was touched by the incredible hospitality of the regions people and abundance of fresh produce on offer; it wasn’t uncommon to see mountains of peppers or melons built on the side of the road. On my return to London I searched high and low for anything to appease my yearning to go back but in London there was no obvious ‘Macedonian’ community. No restaurants or shops to visit for a quick fix and all YouTube could offer me were songs by pop folk band, Kismi and singer Juli. (But yes, I hummed along to their catchy tunes anyway.) There was no one I could share my enthusiasm with either: Macedonia wasn’t exactly a top destination of travel back then. Although I felt blessed to have visited, I felt doomed to confine the joy to myself.
Then day one of my best friends Fjolla, a raven haired beauty from Macedonia’s neighbour Kosovo, laid on a breakfast spread. There was spicy beef sausage, char-grilled green peppers, cheese, olives, cucumber and brilliantly red scrambled eggs.
‘How did you make these?’ I asked mopping up the delicious eggs with bread.
‘Just scrambled them with Aivar.’
‘It’s like a pepper pate I guess. We make it over in Kosovo, all over the Balkans actually. This one is mild but my Mum makes a spicy one too with hot peppers. Apparently the best Aivar comes from Macedonia.’ She fetched a jar from the kitchen. ‘Here look.’
‘And you bought this here?’
‘Well no this one was sent by my Mum but you can buy Aivar in Turkish supermarkets, but they’re not the same as this.’ Ah I think I knew what she was talking about: I’d seen huge jars of the pepper coloured stuff with bright yellow labels and little figures dancing in traditional Balkan style costume. Although there are Balkan products available here sold in the pocket of multi cultural areas, the products are the mass-produced types which lack a homemade quality. They’re inaccessible to the masses in the UK, labels in Cyrillic with no tangible explanation of what the product is or how to eat it. I wanted more of the good stuff, the type that Balkanite mothers lovingly prepare and send over.
Fast forward to the present again. Here I am with Phil in Kahve Dunyasi talking about Macedonia. Finally, I have found someone who truly understands about an emotional attachment to the Balkans, himself a food lover of British descent. The Pelagonia range excites me. Its jars resemble traditional vats and the range’s logo is that welcoming sun. The jars contain the goodness I’ve been longing for and made with produce from Macedonia’s plush Pelagonia valley, its no wonder. Complete with the occasional fleck of charred skin, these products are prepared the traditional way (by hand) in the midst of a huge annual harvest.
I for one am a fan after having slathered Pelagonia’s Aivar on bread eaten with white (feta style) cheese, and warming it up with scrambled eggs for a real Balkan style breakfast (heat some in a pan, add loosely whisked eggs, season, then cook until eggs are almost solid.) And after a pretty disastrous attempt at making my own Pumpkin jam last year, I have discovered the delight of a Pelagonia’s golden spread which pleases with its subtle fruitiness given by orange rind and raisins. It compliments creme cheese / kaymak and walnuts amazingly, try the combination on sourdough bread.
The Pelagonia range is small and neat giving enough attention to each product that ensures they each remain brilliant. The other meze-type goodies of the range include Pindjur (mixed vegetables and spices), Luteniza, (the spicy one) Malidzano (the auberginey one) and whole char-grilled peppers.
So what next for Phil and the Pelagonia range? Well it seems the range is taking off and making high quality Balkan produce accessible for a wider audience. Distributor Cotswold Fayre are more than enthusiastic and orders are on the up. As Philip digs his roots into Macedonian soil and branches out to the UK, I am sure he is on the cusp of something brilliant.