As with so many things, the secret is in the pig fat
Burek in Pancevo, Serbia
Behind the counter were two round, flaky spirals of dough, each about 10 inches wide and filled with a different blend of feta cheese. “I’ll try a little bit of both,” I told the woman standing behind the counter. I was hoping for a sliver of each; instead, I ended up with two pie-sized slices. I didn’t protest, both because I didn’t speak much Serbian, and because—I’ll admit—the slices looked damn good.
As she chopped the slices and added a container of burek’s traditional accompaniment, yogurt, to my tray of food, I pulled out my wallet. She shook her head, smiling behind stylish black glasses. “It’s a gift,” she told me. “Come back and pay next time.” This time, I did protest; she insisted, and I sheepishly carried my heaping tray of food to a nearby table.
I had heard legendary tales of Burek Stankoski’s burek from my Serbian friends, and I was eager to dig in. I tried the cheese and red pepper first; it was moist and flavorful, the phyllo dough soft, with a slight crunch. Sure, it was tasty—but not the best thing I’d ever eaten.
Then, I tried the smoked meat and cheese burek. The dough had a light, crispy exterior, perfectly crunchy; the filling was thick with the flavor of onions, garlic, and smoked meat, salty, and well-seasoned. I had another soft, crunchy, oily bite, and then another. I couldn’t stop. The yogurt was a surprisingly delicious accompaniment to the burek, cutting the salt and oil with its tartness. I had planned to eat half and bring the rest home, but within minutes, my two paper plates were clean.
I was still picking flakes off of my plate as the last customers left the shop, leaving me alone with the woman from the counter and a large man with dark hair wearing a baker’s apron. I soon learned that they were Sveltana Stankoski, the owner of the bakery, and her husband, the head baker.
I also learned that I had been lucky to stroll in so nonchalantly and eat so quickly. “People wait for 45 minutes for a slice of our burek,” the husband told me—on Saturday mornings, hundreds of customers line the street outside their shop. The shop is in Pancevo, a small city just outside Belgrade, and they have gained a cult following since opening five years ago. “We have customers from Belgrade, but also from Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia,” Svetlana tells me. “We have even had customers from England, Germany, Italy, and even India and Qatar,” her husband adds. “And now, from the USA!”
The secret to their success, Svetlana and her husband say, is that they line their pans with pig fat rather than vegetable oil. The lard creates that perfectly crunchy exterior, and lends flavor. The other secret, Svetlana tells me, is that there are no lies in their food: “It’s not vegetarian, it’s not vegan. Everybody knows it. And that’s why they come.”
Maybe they also come because of Svetlana’s friendly smile, and eager hospitality—her willingness to chat, and to welcome a hungry traveler like myself with a delicious (and free!) meal. That’s certainly one of the reasons why I’ll be back for another hefty plateful or two. That, and the pig fat.
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