Recently, I fell into an email correspondence with a Bosnian writer and standup comedian called Mirko Bozic. We were discussing one of my less positive restaurant reviews. It seems the appetite for a scathing takedown is just as pronounced in the Balkans as it is in London. His analysis of what made for good food was fun, but it was when he told me that he was writing from Mostar that I leaned into my computer screen.
Back in the early 90s, I worked on a newspaper feature about the Stari Most, the gorgeous 16th-century Ottoman bridge that crossed the Neretva river, linking the city’s various communities. In November 1993, at the height of the brutal Bosnian war, the bridge was destroyed. Of course, it was a horrendous piece of cultural vandalism. But it was also a blunt, physical symbol for what was happening to Bosnia’s multi-ethnic communities.
Now, 25 years later, here I was discussing the banality of food and restaurants with a resident of that city. He told me about the spectacular wines coming out of the vineyards around Mostar which made it into “a Balkan version of Sideways”. He described how a cousin of his had, against all advice, opened a vegetarian cafe serving paleo cakes. “In spite of my expecting he wouldn’t last longer than half a year tops the place turned into a big success,” Mirko said. Recently a Spanish couple arrived and opened a tapas bar. It was thriving.
Anybody who has followed Balkan politics will know that the wounds run deep; that the shooting war might be history but many seriously caustic political and inter-ethnic differences remain. And yet it was clear to me from my discussion with Mirko that food culture had become a way to navigate through some of that. “The key to happiness here,” he wrote, “is to pretend you live in a normal society.” What could be more normal than a spot of tapas?
It was not the first time I had experienced this. For the past few years I have been coming and going from Northern Ireland. Each time, I have been struck by the intense interest in food culture among the generation that came to adulthood post the Good Friday agreement. They also crave a stable form of normality. Saul McConnell is the general manager of Noble, a relatively new bistro just outside Belfast which has rightly won a bunch of awards. At 32, he is a part of that generation. As he said to me, “The hospitality business is a great way to mix and mingle, and when you do that everything else is forgotten. We can talk about food rather than all the other things.”
I am a granite-hearted, steely Englishman. I am repulsed when I hear people talk about food “being cooked with love”. My instinct is to roll my eyes and shout: “I don’t want your bloody love. I want your good taste and skill.” I still hold this to be so. But there is no doubt in my mind that certain of the clichés we trot out about food and community – about the value of sitting down to break bread with each other – are literally true. All too often, people who moan about a shoddy restaurant meal or substandard ingredients are dismissed as wallowing in “first world problems”. It’s a crass response. All any of us wants is to be able to get on with our lives unthreatened by calamity. We want to be so safe that we can sweat the small stuff. When we criticise our lunch, that’s what we are actually talking about: the fact that happily, life is precisely as it should be.