In 1389 a momentous event happened, something that changed the landscape of the Balkans, and of much of Central Europe, for ever. The armies of Murad I, no longer held in check by the Byzantine empire, swarmed into the Balkan peninsula, reaching up to the gates of Vienna in 1529 and controlling Hungary for a good century.
Before eventually retreating, the Turks left in their wake a long-standing legacy made of faith, beliefs and customs which, it can be argued, is at the roots of the many conflicts that have been plaguing this land up until not long ago. However it wasn’t all doom and gloom, for they also left something not quite so divisive: public baths, aniseed-based spirits, an uncanny predilection for trucker moustaches and, more importantly, cuisine. And it’s about food that we’re talking about today.
You can retrace the Turkish hand through menus throughout the region, whether printed in an elegant folder, or stapled to a wall, or shouted by an oily cook. Wherever you’ll be in the Balkans you will always be within walking distance from a plateful of ćevapčići, or grilled minced meat; pogača, or bread cooked in the ashes; simit, or a sort of savoury doughnut; or the burek, the staple on which – together with many different kinds of firewater – the Balkans are run.
We have less than a weekend to run through the peninsula to pay homage to this delicacy, and we start at the epicentre of the old Ottoman Empire, Istanbul. Once upon a time, travellers used to sail up the Golden Horn on feluccas, tartanes or galleys; these days they arrive at Sabiha Gökçen after a sleepless flight, spinal cords firmly rearranged in a shape of L. Solace, however, is not far, under the form of rolls of sade açma, glasses of çay and Efes beer served in 0.75 litres tankards for the price of a half pint in the West End.
But we aren’t here for this.
Börek, burek, byrek, byorek, bouréki. You might be ordering it in Turkey, Serbia, Albania, Armenia or Greece and few things will change. What you’d get is a pasty, made of thin, flaky dough filled with bitter, feta-like cottage cheese, grilled meat or potatoes. Rolled around its centre like a snake, straight up like a cigar or arranged in whatever shape the baker fancied that day, it’s a humble, tasty and straightforward hunger-quencher.
We start off our pilgrimage, because ours is nothing short of a religious reverence for the dish, in Istanbul. Winds and driving rain call for a premature end to our plan to walk into a random Sanayi restaurant for a meal, but we needn’t worry, for böreks are plentiful even in the usually über-franchised retail area of a major international airport. Sure, the türk kahvesi might be done with an electric machine and not by hand, but the cheese börek – presented in the classic Turkish fashion – is nonetheless good.
A short flight lands us in Bosnia after the most entropic disembarking and immigration check ever, with Turk labourers, Bosnian émigrés, Kuwaiti diplomats and the British crew of a military cargo planes all jostling for a spot in the queue. Outside, past chain-smoking locals already donning the obligatory leather jackets, is a glorious sunny day. We board a decrepit Volvo cab, whose driver takes good care of popping his yellow Taxi insignia back in the boot before setting off, the engine seemingly spluttering one part of petrol into the cab for every two that actually makes it into the combustion chamber.
We clatter along a tragic road, Ulica Zmaja od Bosne, better known as Snajperska aleja, sniper alley, during the long years of the Siege of Sarajevo. This urban canyon, bordered by high-rise buildings – some still bearing the scars of war – was a man-made channel running in a straight line for kilometres, giving the Serbian sharpshooters an almost uninterrupted view of the city almost to Veliki Park downtown. Hundreds died or were wounded trying to cross the stretch of tarmac along which we are running, undisturbed, today.
Burek is one of the many things that remain pretty much unchanged throughout the various cantons of the odd entity that is present-day Bosnia, a tangle of soft, slightly oily filo dough and filling, sold by bakeries and corner shops pretty much everywhere. We pick ours in a small store a stone’s throw from the Baščaršija, eating them sitting on the banks of the Miljacka not far from where Gavrilo Princip emptied his gun on Franz Ferdinand and his consort.
The sun sets and we are on the move again. A new dawn, admittedly a foggy one, sees us in Zagreb, Croatia. This is a land at the extreme fringes of the old Ottoman’s sphere of influence: the buildings are unmistakably Mitteleuropean, there are no hammams to be found and mullets are way more popular than ‘staches. Yet, even in a low visibility, one needn’t look far for a burek. Actually, all he needs to do is stroll down a corridor of the Central Bus Station for more of the same, still wrapped around like a rattlesnake like in Sarajevo; downtown, instead, shops advertise a different, triangular shape.
We finally head over to the airport, investing our last kunas into a threatening pile of Ožujsko beer, our burek pilgrimage over. We’ve eaten variants of the delicacy in three countries and two continents, and it’s time to draw some conclusions and decide which, of the many bakeries shops and kiosks visited, makes the best burek. We didn’t need to ponder too much on it, because the answer was there, almost in front of our eyes: it was the only place we actually returned to twice, the only one to have a stray dog almost permanently stationed outside: it was Pekara Edin, on Mula Mustafa Bašeskije number 69, in Sarajevo. If you’re in town and don’t stop there, you’re doing it wrong.