Steaming pans of scrambled eggs and fried chanterelles, piles of eggy bread with lashings of creamy cheese and ajvar, doughy bread fritters with sweet jam and – my favourite – oozy, rich cicvara (pronounced seets-vuh-ruh)… Bosnian breakfasts are meant to be approached with an empty stomach and the willingness to fill it. They are, much like our full English equivalents, the best answer to either a hangover or a day of hard labour ahead.
And this applies especially to cicvara. I first had it in a small corner of the rural north, in a beautiful guesthouse owned by Mira. I was Mira’s first guest – tourism has barely taken off here – and so she lavished the whole event with extreme hostessing. Her dream is to start an agritouristic-type homestay but she’s been lacking the confidence to advertise herself, so I’ll just do it for her and urge you to go, if only for the great food (PM me for her details).
Apple, pear and quince trees surround her house, she has proper free-range turkeys and chickens, an organic veggie plot, a cellar full of jams and ajvar, and a crop of white corn that’s specific only to a few garden plots in the region (read more on that here). Even the water comes from a well in her garden. And Mira herself is just lovely.
The morning of my first day began something like this, after which a big bowl of steaming cicvara followed. Cicvara is a kind of savoury porridge, oozing with cream. Type it into Google Translate and the word gruel comes up, but please don’t let that dissuade you. It’s old-school in Balkan terms; a traditional recipe that fed workmen their much needed calories before a day of labour commenced. These days it’s more often reserved for Orthodox Christmas mornings, a special treat that is especially warming and belly-filling.
The main ingredient of cicvara is cornmeal; a staple in Bosnia & Herzegovina (not to be confused with cornflour British readers!). Find it in ljevača – a cheesy quiche-type cake that is especially good dipped into soup, or an old-fashioned, hard cornbread – koruza – and then there’s polenta-like zganci, typically eaten with crispy pork on top.
We head to the kitchen. Mira brings out her cornmeal in an old plastic bag; she has ground it herself. This is added to a warming pan of water and cow’s milk. When making at home, stir continuously and keep an eye on the heat to stop it from curdling. Use fine cornmeal if you can, although the coarser stuff will work too – you’ll just get a slightly thicker, less silky consistency.
Next, a tub of thick homemade kaymak – what I can only describe as a cheesy-tasting clotted cream. Kaymak is common all over the Balkans, Turkey and even Iraq and Iran, made by skimming the cream from the surface of slowly simmered milk. It’s then left to chill and mature – the longer it is kept the stronger it will taste, but it’s often best at its freshest. For UK readers, Devonshire clotted cream is your best alternative. NOTE: if you ever find yourself in this part of the world, you’ll notice the kaymak down south, in Herzegovina, is waaaay thicker and higher in fat, leaving rich little puddles on the top of cicvara. Up north, there’s still room to serve it with crispy lardons or a little extra cheese. I’ll leave that to you.
Keep cooking it slowly until slightly thickened, creamy, oozy and delicious. Season it to taste, add some double cream if you want a silkier – more fattyboomboom – consistency, then bring to the table. Eat, enjoy, do a workout.
230ml cow’s milk
optional: 1 teaspoon pork lard
2 handfuls of cornmeal
100g full-fat kaymak or Devonshire clotted cream
optional: double cream, crispy lardons, cheese
Place the milk and 230ml water into a medium pan over a medium heat. As it’s heating, add a good pinch of sea salt and the lard if you have any, then gradually tip in the cornmeal, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon to stop it curdling. Cook until just starting to boil, then reduce the heat to low. Stir in the kaymak or clotted cream and continue cooking slowly until thick and delicious. Season to taste. Serve hot just as it is, or with a little cream, lardons and cheese if you’re really going for it!
Till next time…
Keep any leftovers for the next day. Place over a gentle heat and add a little extra cream or milk to bring it back to life again.