Guide to SKOPJE

The Balkans are a fascinating gastronomic region – Balkon3 interview with Zlatko Gall

MK TR

“Eating only wholegrain cereal, some green leaves, drinking Evian water and running for 50 km a day. To hell with that! That’s not life” – Balkon3 interview with Zlatko Gall, a Croatian journalist, commentator, one of the most influential rock critics in Croatia, a legend.

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As an aficionado of delicious food, fine cooking and beauty in simplicity, he has written books on his first and second passion (cooking and music, music and cooking) which, as a rule, become bestsellers in Croatia. He has written several books on music and cooking such as the Great World Rock Encyclopedia, Music Lexicon, The Marine Cookbook, Savour the Flavour and Sound of Dalmatia etc. The trump card of the Balkans and Macedonia in the world of food are the amazing vegetables. The smell of tomatoes and peppers is indispensable – says this passionate pilgrim and inventor of the“Savour and listen” style. He says he has been lucky and we do not object. He is as lucky as can be as his work is related to quality food, good music, sea, fish, wineEating only wholegrain cereal, some green leaves, drinking Evian water and running 50 km a day. To hell with that! That’s not life! – these words sum up Zlatko Gall’s attitude to food. We talked after Starigrad Paklenica Film Festival about food, music, new trends in journalism, journalist trends as social phenomena, Macedonia, Croatia, Dalmatia

Music and food are your life and that is what you do. Has anything new attracted your attention lately?

I say that I am happy, actually. I have a degree in History of Art and I wrote critic and analytic articles for fifteen years. We transferred that manner of literary critique to rock and roll because it is done in a very similar way. We actually formatted that manner of writing about a seemingly trivial thing using the language of art. I say that I am a lucky man with a formal education who has been living with all his vices, hobbies and interests for some 30 years now. This year is my 35th anniversary of publishing at least one review a week.  That kind of makes me a world champion, because some of my heroes, critics from the UK and the USA, have long stopped writing reviews. They write long introductions or stories but they don’t write weekly music reviews and do not follow music production.

Gastronomy is my second passion. Music comes first and gastronomy is my second passion, or the other way round. They actually complement each other. Ten years ago I published my first gastronomic book completely by chance. I was too lazy to write all the recipes that came to mind so I took pictures and wrote down some notes and remarks so that I can remember what I had cooked when I checked pictures a few months later. Eventually, I ended up with a ton of recipes… So, I wrote my first cookbook completely by chance and I thought that not many people would be interested. I expected to sell about a dozen books but it turned out to be ten thousand of them, so the second book followed and then the third one… At the same time I continued to write books about rock music and music phenomenons.

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I was born in 1954, just months after the recording Elvis Presley’s first studio album which is the official beginning of rock ‘n’ roll. So, on the 50th anniversary of rock music and my 50th birthday I published the first edition of “The Great World Encyclopedia of Rock” which is about three and a half thousand pages of text. The encyclopedia came accidentally, because I had always imagined that after 30 years of experience as a critic I had amassed quite a lot of material so I could easily write an encyclopedia. After a year I realized that it was a bloody affair, but was too late to give up on the idea. It’s like a swimmer who comes halfway and has no choice but finish the race, otherwise he would drown. So I kept on working and it took three years of writing eight hours a day. There is no money in the world that can make me do it all over again or even anything similar to this. And so, out came the first edition, then the second one which was sold in 45 thousand copies and then after three or four years I made some changes and additions for another publisher. There were several books that were selling really well and that triggered another set of events. Everything I do happens accidentally. When the new edition of the Croatian dictionary of foreign words was being prepared I was engaged to define terms related to pop culture, art, popular phenomena, rock, jazz, etc. Since I am not an encyclopaedist or a lexicographer I can’t write short, abbreviated definitions, so I just wrote very long definition, a page or a page and a half long and then cut them down until I reached certain definitions. When I realized that there were around three or four hundred pages of text I got the idea to make the Thesaurus of Popular Music. Three editions have come out in the past two years in which I’ve tried to define a heap of terms that people, and even those in the profession, have almost forgotten the meaning of, such as back beat. I defined how instruments work, for example the pedal steel guitar, or the difference between dub and two step, what electronic music is including all its genres… and it also went well. The books are still selling very well. That is how I came to write about gastronomy and rock music. That fulfilled my two biggest wishes, besides the usual everyday job of writing since I consider myself primarily a journalist.

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How do you see this widespread attitude of young people, the way they seem so proud to say they can’t cook, or can fry eggs only?

I think it is a global phenomenon, and modern cooking is fancy schmansy, a real hype. When a man can’t cook it is not regarded the same as a woman not being able to change the fuse, but as a woman who is not able to turn on a computer or make coffee. Things have changed and I think there is a considerably more widespread phenomenon. In the age of yuppies suddenly a large group of super-rich young people was created. When they reached their thirties they realized it was absurd to have 20, 30 or a couple of hundred million dollars and eat only wholegrain cereal, some green leaves, drink Evian water and run for 50 km a day. To hell with that! That’s not a life. So, in America red meat started making its way back, real steaks, Black Angus steaks etc. and somehow that gastronomy or enjoyment in gastronomy, a kind of hedonism replaced the ascetic minimalist life of that first yuppie generation. This trend would not have become so popular without the help from mass media and the abundance of gastronomic shows or channels such as 24 Hours Kitchen or the most recent phenomenon of Jamie Oliver. In most countries today gastronomy is a top issue and it’s like a tidal wave that brings everything with it, so there are some real quality things and those that only try to follow the latest fashions.

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Where do the Mediterranean and Oriental cuisine merge? We live in a region where these two famous cuisines come to close contact. What are their differences and similarities?

I think that is impossible to clearly differentiate them when it comes to this region, the region of former Yugoslavia. Let’s say that there is a sort of a border line when it comes to former Yugoslavia and it’s somewhere in northwestern Croatia and the highlands of Slovenia. That region is exposed to the strong influence of the Mediterranean, but in that Mediterranean cuisine there is a little of everything. When you say Mediterranean what usually comes to mind are those red and white checked tablecloths on the tables, a bottle Chianti and spaghetti on the table, but it is just a small part of it. The larger part of the Mediterranean is comprised of Western Africa and the fact that they are all a part (an offspring) of the Armenian cuisine. People who seriously study the phenomenon of gastronomy say Armenians deserve credit for everything and of course the Turks who spread it. It is the great Ottoman Empire which brought together spices from the Far East, olive oil, fish and lamb and everything that makes the basis of the cuisine in this part of the Mediterranean including the Arab region, also Greece, Macedonia, Dalmatia and Turkey of course. There are perfect vegetables which can be prepared in a variety of dishes and are a key segment of Mediterranean cuisine. In Croatia things are a bit more complex because three major civilizations influence and mix in a relatively small area. On the one hand is the Ottoman part of the Mediterranean, the second is the influence of Venice. I say trade made Venice the funnel in the Mediterranean, a point at which all possible influences intertwine – French, Continental Europe and the whole of the Mediterranean. Also, Venice had a decisive influence on Dalmatia which was part of Venice for hundreds of years. Furthermore, the continental influence of Austro-Hungary which brings something different is not negligible, so when talking about the Dalmatian cuisine we see that it is not just a blend of Mediterranean and Turkish components. And it is marvelous to have so much diversity in such a small space. When we look at Dalmatia we see that there are variations of the same local, traditional dishes in all the villages on one island, and the ingredients are the same – some meat, beef with olive oil, tomatoes… That is the advantage of this region together with Macedonia, southern Serbia, Bosnia, Dalmatia and Istria and of course. Northwestern Croatia has not been influenced as much. It is almost inconceivable that in such a small region there are so many different cuisines, how much they have been influenced, how many dishes were adopted and adapted to local foods and local customs. We actually live in a fascinating gastronomic space, but as it is usual for our countries, we are not aware of it. There has to be someone from outside to come and point that out to us and even then would we understand…

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Do you know Macedonian cuisine? What do you like most about it? I do not know if you are aware of it but in Macedonia everybody puts an emphasis on grilled meat, rarely does anyone mention local, autochthonous dishes?

The whole story is in the so-called Armenian-Lebanese-Turkish cuisine, the Arab cuisine. What is it famous for? They don’t consume pork so we can exclude most of the delicatessen and dry meat products, and we are left with only lamb meat. This upsets the whole grilled meat story here unlike French cuisine where you eat anything that can fly, crawl, walk on four or two legs. They have made gastronomy out of everything. So, what do we have left then? What we are left with is actually the best of Macedonian cuisine, and that is the sensational vegetables. The number one advantage of Macedonia is the fact that what grows there is simply wonderful. The taste and smell of those tomatoes and peppers, I think I could literally drown myself in them. Why are these vegetables so good? It again draws a parallel with Dalmatia and the islands where people have completely forgotten these spices, wild plants that can be pickled, dried and miracles be done with them. Everything that is grown in the field is great, and some Englishmen and Americans are rediscovering what we have forgotten. I think the situation is the same everywhere round the region. Our biggest strength are the top ingredients and products but we fail to recognize that and keep lagging behind. Nowadays anyone can buy a cookbook, any hotel can afford to hire a top chef, but what they can’t get is to prepare food with ingredients that are grown around them in their natural habitat. And THAT is sensational. Therefore, in areas such as Macedonia, slowcooking and slowfood should come naturally. When Carlo Petrini started the slowfood project the slogan was: “Let people travel, not groceries”. Why would I eat Provencal plants or spice made of Provencal herbs in Dalmatia or Zagreb when we can find those same herbs nearby? Why would I eat peppers from the Netherlands when we have domestic peppers that are much better and actually grow here? But we are not as smart as all these other people and luckily we were not a major agricultural industrial power in Yugoslavia so our soil had not been poisoned and we use indigenous seeds which are far better from the ones created in laboratory. Still, there is a chance for us but only if we are smart enough to recognize it. This applies to all countries of the former Yugoslavia.

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Allow me ask you as a fellow journalist, about the situation in the Balkans. How do you feel about the current situation of former-Yugoslav media?

Nowadays, it is illusory to talk about media objectivity. There used to be party committees involved and now it is the big corporations. So, in Croatia you can slander, insult, spit on the President, Prime Minister or the presidents of all parties, but no one dares to attack the presidents of three or four most powerful corporations. Media freedom is a relative concept and I think that absolutely free media do not exist anywhere around the globe, but the obvious thing is that journalism is a profession which is being shattered here and around the world. Journalism has been destroyed here not only because of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the imminent collapse of a system, but also by the wars that followed, all the ugly things that happen on all levels of life and the two million parties which have just one thing in common – those who come to power plan to steal all they can, regardless of who they are or where they are. That is our reality. A part of this reality is that journalism as a profession is dying out. I do not know if editorial boards still exist, I’m talking about the print media, the ones major newspapers have, that chain of operations that the media consist of. There was a reporter, then an editor, a proofreader, editor in chief and then the paper went to press.  Then there was a person called a logical reader, it was one of those sharp minds who would glance at a page and notice all errors. There used to be a chain of people who checked for mistakes or wrong captions.

It is all gone now. Journalism of today is totally undervalued and I think that in the corporate world the same rules apply to restaurants, supermarkets and journalists. You can always drag in someone from the street who will gladly write for 100 euros. Unemployment is high and quality is not important at all. Why should anyone pay one or two thousand euros to a journalist when you can find somebody to work for 100 euros and if he won’t do then another one will come, or ten other people.

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How did the story with Starigrad Paklenica Film Festival begin?

Well, I was supposed to be part of the jury the first year the festival started. I was invited by Niksa Bratos and Culi (Admir Culumarevic, festival director) but I had previous arrangements in Berlin so I skipped the first year. Paklenica is primarily a story of friendship. All the people involved in Paklenica Festival are actually friends who get together regularly but I still think that Paklenica is much more than a social club and friendship but it is this component of socializing and informality that adds to its charm. It is a unique festival, without protocol (even Motovun festival has a protocol), no red carpets although there are serious filmmakers and producers involved. The most charming thing is that this festival is a relaxing, socializing experience which offers an opportunity to see some great films and meet great people without any ceremonial protocol or formalities.

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Darko Chekerovski

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