Macedonia is an unforgettable gourmand odyssey for the modern traveler, who is an adventurously oriented towards food, ready and open-minded for new delicious experiences. Our food impresses with the richness of authentic tastes, above all, thanks to the sun and the fertile soil. However, the search for authentic flavors continues with a return to tradition, that inexhaustible sacristy of gastronomic treasures.
Sandra from Bitola is the woman who is the guardian of the Macedonian gastronomic heritage. She rediscovers and continues the tradition, drawing inspiration for her real masterpieces at the table, which are a real enjoyment for all senses. She is the woman who has entertained more than 600 tourists in the large courtyard, surrounded by the houses of several families. She is a woman who doesn’t speak any foreign language, although she understands English and adores the French, but as she says: When somebody loves people, when somebody wants to convey something, words are not needed. With mimics, gestures, or I don’t know how, you are transmitting what you want. Simply, people feel they are loved, coveted and welcome.
Avoiding straight lines
Sandra is an energetic housewife, who doesn’t (want to) follow any standards.
Since I was a child, I didn’t want to go in any order. I don’t want straight lines. I don’t want anyone to tell me that I have to do something. These things keep me in place. I am a woman with a wide, how to say, sight. I want to try and taste everything, she says.
On the question for her favorite meal, Sandra thought for a while...
I do not have some favorite meal, something that I eat more or less, simply, I eat everything. This way, when I think about it, I like the lamb soup very much, I have always liked that dish, and I adore it. I like sarma rolls, I love them. At one meal I can eat 12 to 15 sarmi. I love cheese too much, and I cannot imagine life without it. And the meat. Although, according to my blood group, I shouldn’t eat meat or cheese. But I break this rule too. That’s another example that I don’t live by some written rules.
Sandra's first attempt at culinary was when she was 14-15 years old. She decided to make an Indianka cake. Her mother was cleaning at home, and she was impatient to start making the cake, so she started herself, according to the written recipe. Instead of a cake, the result, as she said, was a "teganica".
The experiment failed. Well, the cream covered a little bit, but it was not Indianka. However, we ate that cake. Since then, I've always been careful not to throw food. If I made some mistake, I'm looking for ways to fix it and use it somehow. Only when I think that some people have nothing to eat and throwing food – somehow, I don’t feel good.
Both the second and the third attempt had a similar destiny. The second attempt was a pizza for her boyfriend in that time Tony, her current husband, with whom they are together for 37 years. The pizza came out like bread, but Tony ate it with delight. The third attempt – ice cream, or something that resembles like water with walnuts. However, Sandra didn’t gave up... She knew that deeply, she was bringing culinary gene.
And when I got married, I did not know anything to do. Just some basics. I repeatedly phoned my parents: Hello, may I speak with the chief? And I would ask them for fried eggs, for some dish, for something sweet, pastry... My deceased grandfather use to say that my mother did something of nothing, and my dad was a master for pastries and sweets. Simply, I knew that I have the roots from my family.
As long as Sandra was studding at the Faculty of Law, she worked simultaneously in a boutique for clothes.
It seems that the trade is innate in me. When I sit down and think for a while, I'm actually doing a calculation where I can trade. The old owner of the boutique always joked with me. She told me: Oh Sandra, if you have garbage for selling, you will sell it.
After a while, she decided to open her own boutique. The business progressed greatly in those nice years and as she said at that time was like the Lord steps to earth. There was a lot of work, she was going for merchandise in Turkey twice, and sometimes three times in a month, as well in Greece... However, after the golden years, crisis followed and the moment when Sandra realized that she could no longer work alone. She decides to close the boutique. But the trade passion does not stop.
Nowadays many times when I go to a boutique, I’m selling clothes to the customers. Or I'm folding the clothes... That's my professional deformation.
According to Sandra, the trade and the culinary, although different in appearance, somehow are united.
Somehow these two passions came and stayed in my life. Not that I had any special desire for this or for that... Simply, I discovered them and I realized that they have always been in my blood. She didn’t finish the Faculty of Law. I finished High Low School (two years). I started the third year and pass the colloquium for criminal law and that was all.
She never knew exactly what she wanted to be. She only knew that it should be connected with art and creativity. To create something from nothing. Sandra enjoys in the process of creation, it makes her happy and fulfill. That's her biggest satisfaction.
In the family of Balkan Prime Tours
The Pechalevi family is Sandra, her husband Toni and their two children Ivana and Aleksandar. The family has always been known for the good parties in the Bitola’s courtyard.
There were a lot of unforgettable parties here. Eating, drinking, swimming in the pool... We enjoy being surrounded by people, we simply attract people.
Nearly two years ago, Ivana had a Balkan tour with the French tourists, which included Macedonia as well.
I think there were 26 people. She called me and she said: Mom, we are going through Bitola, so we'll come to visit you and have a cup of coffee. I told her, come, you will not frighten me. The French people thought it was mock, but Ivana was serious. And they came. An entire group was walking from the Clock Tower, and the first two were caring a huge flowerpot of azalea (I still have it). The tour leader, who was theater writer, gave an introductory speech to the entrance and made tears keep falling down my face... And above all, everyone hugged me and kissed me, somehow spontaneously.
Although (un)expected guests came only for "apero" (an aperitif), meanwhile Sandra got ready and set up everything on the two tables in the courtyard – vishnovka, orevovka, limonchelo drinks... different kinds of slatko, made of apricots, figs, raspberries... kiflichki, nivichki pastries, kjoftinja (meatbals), chicken wings with honey, piroshki... cake... The French people were delighted and pleased. The scheduled dinner in Ohrid was canceled.
After a while, in early July last year, Ivana called "officially" Sandra:
Mom, do you want Japanese guests? She agreed, but with great reserve. The French are somehow similar to us, but Japanese guests were something unknown for me. I accepted, and when I decide something, I do it. The guests came and got into the courtyard. Believe me, if the ants pass, they will make more noise. They were so quiet, and the table was top. There was o lot of food on the table, because first of all, I didn’t know what to prepare. I decorated with many old fashioned items; the courtyard was covered with old fashioned carpets. They come in and they were just taking photos.
The Japanese didn’t show any emotion. As Sandra says, their faces were pale, bur her own face was even more. She was expected some kind of emotional reaction on their faces.
After they took a lot of photos, they sat down on the tables and began to eat. And they ate with sweetness. When I saw their plates so emptied, my soul came back slowly. I served the fruit, in the shape of a very beautiful cake, and I just heard: Aaaa... A real delirium from the seemingly calm Japanese happened when I brought them a cake with the Japanese flag. Finally my blood came into my face – I exhaled, smiled and I knew that I managed to entertain them and make them satisfied.
Previously, Vlatko mentioned to Sandra several times that she is already part of the Balkan Prime Tours family, but somehow she understood it more like a chat.
Previously Vlatko had come to our house with Ivana on a tour, so that’s how we met. I simply have no words for him. Whatever I say about him is a bit. Not that I love him, I admire him! I wish him everything best from the best in this world. Why? Because he doesn’t put himself in the first place. For him the most important is the quality team, and how the team will be quality, if he doesn’t give an excellent example... Not only for his employees, he also wanted to involved employees' families in the work. Therefore, the Balkan Prime Tours team is a family in the true sense. We are all happy and cheerful, and this is all thanks to Vlatko.
That's how it started.
Empty plates, full soul
Although several times the Pechalevi family thought whether to change the space for welcoming tourists – to enclose or reconstruct the courtyard, rent another space, they conclude that the lunch would lose from authenticity. This is the way it is.
After the guests will be announced beforehand, the preparations for their welcoming start – shopping, cooking, setting up the tables, decorating...
Shopping groceries is Tony's commitment. Only in the case when I search for something specific, if I have something very special on mind, then I go. Tony did all the shopping, that's huge help for me. Literally, I do not know how much even cheese and bread cost...
Whenever she is not busy, Sandra is kneading as much as possible, because the pastries can be frozen (kiflichki, pizzas, some decorative pastries). The whole other dishes are fresh made. Tavche-gravche is made a day earlier, just like the stuffed peppers. On the day when the guests arrived, she gets up early in the morning about 4-5 o'clock and prepares all the dishes. Suma sumarum, it takes two to three days for complete arrangement.
It's happening to get a new idea in the last moment, and I'm trying to pick it up and prepare it. That's normal for me.
The duty of her son Aleksandar, who is studying at the Faculty of Technical Sciences – Bitola and works at the same time, is lining the tables and get down the plates and cutleries in the courtyard.
I have no faith in anyone for setting the table, says Sandra through laughter.
I want to set everything up as I thought it should be. Ivana asks me why I don’t call someone for help. Yes, I need help for shopping and for lining the tables, but I have this help from Tony and Aleksandar. Just as I set it by myself, no one else can set it. Maybe the other will make it more beautiful, but it will not be as I like and as I have imagined. This may be in one way my negative side, but that's just the way I am.
At Sandra’s, the courtyard is always different decorated, it's never the same...
The spices are her weak side, because there is always a great game with them. She worships and planted them in the yard behind the house.
Garden sage, rosemary, basil, parsley ... and all that I use most. All of them I plant and I have. I have planted raspberries as well. And tomatoes. I have a small space behind the house that is maximally used. At my place everywhere you can see something sedentary… even here, in the flowerpots. There are the pumpkins. The flowers hide fruits or vegetables.
The guests are already at the gates. They are welcomed with the traditional Macedonian fruit cocktail rum-punch.
Every piece of fruit is putted in rum with sugar and is left for a while; it's an old recipe I’m not sure how many years. I can also welcome the guests with vishnovka, orevovka, limonchelo. Every cocktail is homemade. I don’t practice do buy anything ready. After I offer them to sit down, I serve the traditional homemade slatko. I usually put two or three kinds – pumpkins, apricots, figs... Sofrata (the table) is always ready with all the dishes, including the main one. Everything is set, because I don’t want to be like a waiter.
Every sofra at Sandra’s is different:
For the guests, I always cook the traditional tavche-gravche, stuffed peppers... But every season brings different food. When it comes autumn or early spring, I have podvarok, sarma rolls of cabbage, vine leaf, with meat and meatless... I make dry peppers stuffed with walnuts... The main meal is always something traditional. Tavche-gravche is mandatory and the other meals are seasonal. Everything is served on the table. I want the guests to put in their plates whatever they want, when they want and as much as they want. After that, I serve the fruit cake and, finally, the desert – usually the traditional ravanija.
Finally it’s time for the cake with the flag of the country where the guests come from.
It's like my trademark. To all the guests I prepare a cake with their flag, which causes awesome ovations, because they don’t expect it. All this gives them a feeling that they are desired guests. Thus, by respecting their country, I’m representing the best our country Macedonia as a home of great food, but above all, as a warm country filled with hospitality.
The idea for the flags comes from the godfather whose house is in the same courtyard.
I need to underline this. Our godfather was a professional basketball coach in the national team. He recounted that when they went to Pula and some other places, they were very surprised by the cake with Macedonian flag from their hosts. So, I stole that idea from him. Cakes with flags are his merit.
Tony is in charge for drinks.
I welcome people with all kinds of food, I will give them my soul, but I always forget the drink. If they don't ask, I won't even give them water, Sandra jokes. If Tony is not here by chance, he'll call me ten times – Sandra, you have wine there, you have juice there. He will remind me for every drink. In this spot we are very complementary.
People and memories
Sandra has a book in which guests write down their impressions. The idea for the book came from two Italian women, originally from Bulgaria, who came with Vlatko and Svetle, who is also part of the Balkan Prime Tours family.
The Italian women were so happy to be here. They spoke Bulgarian and it was so easy to communicate with them, to tell them what I really felt and to hear my voice and the emotion of what I was saying. They took a napkin and wrote their impressions. Since then, I have been inspired and started running this notebook for impressions. I tell the guests: Write down everything that is nice or not nice. I would also like some negative critics, in the sense that something is missing – garlic, onions, spoon, plate... But so far everything has been positive. Ivana translates the writings for me, I don't understand them, Sandra laughs.
If she had the opportunity to write down her impressions, it would be that she is amazed at the way tourists view ordinary, everyday things for us.
The French guests are coming. There, the firewood was arranged in our yard. They see and ask me if they can take a photo of them. I told them – sure, be free. Everything that impresses them, we don't even look at. They are amazed by the jug that is put here, or by the pots I had set up. For them, it's all an experience. What we do not see, what we have on a daily basis, what doesn’t come to our minds that would attract anyone's attention.
Another occurrence was in early autumn, when it's time for making ajvar.
Early October... Zimnica (food for winter) is preparing there on that side of the yard. The guests have chance to see how the ajvar is being made, which is a real experience for them. They wanted to blend the ajvar, we took photos of their smiling faces full of excitement…
For Sandra, the woman who enjoys cooking at any time of the day or night, who stands up even on her head to do what she imagined, the greatest satisfaction is when she sees the empty plates and when her husband asks her:
What did they finished?, and she will answer – Everything! There is nothing left for us!
Before the end of the conversation, we asked Sandra how she came to new recipes and is she following what is happening in the world.
Whenever I’m going in restaurants in my country and abroad, I order the food I like, and I keep ordering the same until I reveal all its ingredients through its taste. My TV is always turned on "24Kitchen" or I’m watching Turkish series. I love Jamie Oliver! But why the Turkish series? Simply, I am amazed by that way of familiarity, for example when the family has to be together for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Sandra is open-minded to new tips and recipes.
The first time I will make the dish as somebody told me or as I saw it. But the second time, I always add or subtract something, I do it on my own.
Lastly, Sandra, as a good housewife, didn’t prepare traditional Macedonian dishes for us, because we know those flavors from the recipes of our mothers and grandmothers. She offered us a delicious combination of Macedonian cuisine with other types of cuisines. At the sofra in Sandra's courtyard today we had on menu:
- Slatko of figs;
- Watermelon salad with goat cheese, chard, mint, balsamic and lemon;
- Turkish bread;
- Mazniche with cabbage;
- Meatless pitulici with garlic, nuts, cheese and peanuts;
- Chicken wings with honey;
- Chicken surprise in foil plates;
- Greek moussaka with béchamel, zucchini, eggplants, potatos and meat (and the secret spice that we found out, but we won't say it...);
- Fruit cake;
- Chocolate baskets;
Sandra loves all flavors. When I feel the food as sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness, for me it is a holiday of my palate. And we believe that today we have tasted the umami. The fifth taste, which indicates a connection and a sense of oneness with food. They say that umami is hiding. It blends in with other flavors and rounds off what the consumer feels. There is no proper word to translate it, but umami could best be described as the tasty taste, the taste of "A la Sandra".