There's strong evidence that south-east Europeans enjoy an outstandingly healthy diet. World Health Organisation figures show that the Balkan peoples have an even lower incidence of heart disease and diet-related cancers than those of south Mediterranean, whose dishes are now famously fashionable among the healthy-minded.
These facts emerge from a new book on Balkan food and cookery, The Melting Pot, by Bulgarian-born Maria Kaneva-Johnson (Pros-pect Books, pounds 19.50). But what is the healthy Balkan diet exactly? Masses of wholemeal bread and grain mixtures, kasha, bulgur (cracked wheat), rice, pasta, potatoes, pulses and vegetables, fruit, plus dairy foods, meat perhaps once a week.
The health message is timely, but it is almost incidental in this scholarly work, which is surely the most comprehensive ever attempted on this opaque subject. The Melting Pot has been a magnum opus, entailing more than 20 years of research, requiring knowledge of the cultural, religious and social differences of eight distinct regions, not to mention a familiarity with their languages - Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek, Macedonian, Romanian, Serbo-Croat, Slov-enian and Turkish.
Kaneva-Johnson's aim has been to give wider credence to a homely but delicious cuisine that has been overlooked. Balkan food culture is complex, she admits, though the centuries-long Turkish occupation gives it an overall shape.
We know of paella, pizza and pasta mainly because Spain and Italy are major holiday destinations. Balkan staple foods, by comparison, might as well come from another planet; mention mamaliga, turlu guvec, kebabche or sirene, and you'll be met with incomprehension. It's only for want of a translator, though. For mamaliga is polenta, so fashionable in Lon- don's modern Italian restaurants; turlu guvec is a delicious baked vegetable stew (recipe below); kebabche is what it sounds like, a grilled kebab, made with minced meat; sirene is the cheese we know as feta. Examine the Balkan repertoire a little more closely and you'll discover versions of hummus, stuffed peppers, moussaka, shish kebab, sauerkraut, baklava and strudel, and their alien cuisine looks suddenly more familiar. We are no strangers, either, to their most famous product - yoghurt.
This brings us to that part of Bulgaria renow-ned for the longevity of its inhabitants - a district in the Rhodope Mountains around the town of Smolyan, some 1,300m above sea level. At the last count, four people in every thousand were 100 years old or more; in the US, the figure is around four per quarter million. Kaneva-Johnson has often visited Smolyan. If you go to the mountain villages beyond the town, she says, you encounter time capsules where the pattern of life hasn't been disturbed for centuries. These pockets of longevity, similar to others that occur in the Caucasus, Vilcabamba in Ecuador and Hunza in India, have long been the subject of investigation by scientists,
Maria first visited some of the villages with her Canadian husband, Tom, 30 years ago. He found the old people strange, with "faces like collapsed footballs". Tom smiles the smile of a man about to make a joke. "I asked this man how old he was. He said, 'Maybe 98 or 99; just a minute, I'll go and ask my father.' Seriously, though, I asked an old man about their herb tea, and he was suddenly scrambling half-way up the mountain to get me some leaves."
What is the secret of their great age? It's partly lifestyle, partly diet, suggests Maria. Men and women work the land 12 hours a day well into their nineties. They mostly come from large families and in turn have large families. Most don't smoke or drink (though there is a mildly alcoholic fruit drink made from berries). They don't drink coffee or tea (but there are herbal teas). They don't use sugar, but there is honey. Baked pumpkin (see receipe below) is the big sweet treat. The main sources of protein are cheese, milk and yoghurt, eaten with a great deal of wholemeal bread and cereal porridges, but very little meat, usually lamb. They also eat masses of vegetables and fruit.
Maria has prepared some meze for lunch, and what could be tastier? There are slices of salami, pitta bread, a hummus dip, filo pastries stuffed with feta cheese, home-made bread. This is what many people would have before lunch in the Balkans, perhaps followed by a soup or a rich vegetable dish. Often such a meal ends with a milky dessert of some kind, such as semolina, or creme caramel, or a fruit kissel (pureed fruit set with a little cornflour).
Supper often consists of vegetables (such as green peppers stuffed with an egg and cheese mixture, or an aubergine dish) inevitably served with thick yoghurt, eaten with wholemeal bread, followed by fruit. There are famous Balkan meat dishes, none more so than shish kebab, which is usually eaten when people dine out. There are famous rich sweets, too, such as baklava (honeyed filo pastry with nuts), but they are feast-day rather than everyday foods.
With so many influences, how does the Balkan diet differ from the so- called Mediter-ranean diet? It may be that a Mediterranean diet is predominantly salty (olives, anchovies, capers, sun-dried tomatoes) while the Balkan style is interestingly sour (even leaving aside the ubiquitous souring agent, yoghurt).
Many of the classic soups of these countries are sour, sharpened with vinegar, lemon juice, sauerkraut liquor, verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes) or the juice of unripe cooking apples. Even the tartaric deposit in the bottom of wine casks is prized, and used in fish sauces. One favourite Balkan food is sauerkraut, put down in barrels and stored through the winter to provide a constant source of Vitamin C.
The recipes that follow give the merest taste of the food of the region. If you want to live to be 100, though, you'll have to buy the book.
YOGHURT AND GARLIC SAUCE
In the Balkans, this dish - with its combination of yoghurt and raw garlic - is credited with health-giving qualities. The sauce is usually spooned over stewed, baked or fried vegetables, or placed under fried or poached eggs.
1-2 garlic cloves, skinned
250g/9oz thick-set plain yoghurt
Pound the garlic with a pinch of salt in a mortar, and then blend in the yoghurt. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Use the sauce immediately, or cover it and keep it in the refrigerator.
Serves 4 as a main course, 6-8 as a cold dish
Turlu guvec, found throughout the region.
1 medium aubergine, unpeeled, cut into cubes, sprinkled with salt and left to drain in a colander for 2-3 hours, rinsed and squeezed gently to remove excess moisture
100g/312oz young okra, stalks carefully pared off
250g/9oz frozen peas (if fresh, pre-cook in boiling water for 10 minutes)
300g/1012oz young green beans, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 medium-sized courgettes, unpeeled, sliced into rounds
2 medium-sized onions, finely chopped
400g/14oz potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
400g/14oz peeled fresh or canned tomatoes, chopped
1 large green pepper, seeded and cut into squares
1 large bunch parsley, chopped
2-3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons paprika
5-6 tablespoons vegetable oil
4-5 tomatoes, sliced into rounds (for topping)
Keep the sliced tomatoes on one side, but put all the other vegetables and the parsley in a large earthenware casserole or tureen, about 30cm/12in in diameter and about 9cm/4in deep. Season with salt and paprika and pour over four tablespoons of the oil. Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Arrange the tomato rounds on top. Sprinkle with the remaining oil and smooth out the surface with the back of a spoon.
Bake in a pre-heated oven (190C/375F/Gas 5) for 60-75 minutes, until the tomatoes brown. There should be only a little sauce left in the casserole. Serve in the cooking dish either hot or cold, with a cucumber salad and fresh bread.
CRACKED WHEAT PILAFF
In the Balkans, bulgur is often used instead of rice in pilaffs.
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons oil
200g/7oz coarse bulgur wheat
625ml/21fl oz hot lamb or chicken stock
1 tablespoon sultanas
50g/134oz pine nuts or blanched almonds, chopped
Brown the onion in the oil. Stir in the wheat and fry for a minute, still stirring. Add the hot stock and sultanas, cover and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 25-30 minutes, adding more stock or hot water if necessary, until the wheat is tender and the liquid absorbed. Stir in the nuts and season with salt to taste. Serve hot in individual heated bowls or one large serving bowl.
Makes one loaf
An enriched cornbread, usually served with white brine cheese or with scrambled eggs.
100g/312oz coarse cornmeal
1 large pinch salt
1 small egg, lightly beaten
15g/12oz lard or butter, melted with 1 tablespoon sunflower oil (reserve a little for topping
400ml/14fl oz milk
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
Put the cornmeal in a mixing bowl. Beat in the rest of the ingredients to make a pouring batter. Grease a round baking pan 21cm/9in across, and pour in the mixture. Bake in a preheated oven at 180C/350F/Gas 4 for 25 minutes. Pour over the reserved fat and bake for another 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
BAKED PUMPKIN PUREE
375g/13oz thick, canned or freshly baked and drained pulp of the common pumpkin
2 eggs, separated, whites stiffly beaten
50g/2oz castor sugar
grated zest of 1 lemon
50g/2oz ground almonds or walnuts
half teaspoon ground cinnamon (if using walnuts)
Put the pulp into a mixing bowl. In a bowl apart, beat the yolks with the sugar and lemon zest until light and pale, then fold into the pumpkin pulp. Stir in nuts and sultanas (and cinnamon, if using walnuts), and fold in the egg whites. Pour into a greased and floured baking dish 19cm/712 inches in diameter, and bake in a preheated oven at 180C/350F/Gas 4 for 35-40 minutes, until set. Leave to cool in the oven with the door open and the heat off. Serve warm or cold, with cream or sprinkled with icing sugar.
PEPPERS STUFFED WITH RICE
4 medium peppers, about 750g/112lbs in total
For the stuffing:
2 large onions, about 600g/1lb 4oz in all, finely chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
150g/5oz long-grain rice
50g/2oz pine nuts or sunflower seeds
50g/2oz sultanas or 1 teaspoon sugar
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh savory or 12 teaspoon dried savory
1-2 teaspoons chopped mint leaves or 12 teaspoon dried mint
1-2 tablespoons chopped dill
For the cooking liquid:
125ml/4fl oz tomato juice
12 teaspoon each paprika, salt and pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or 25g/1oz butter
egg-and-lemon finishing sauce (see below)
Cut the tops off the peppers. Remove cores, seeds and ribs. To make the stuffing, heat the oil in a saucepan over a low heat and cook the onion, covered, until golden - about 25 minutes. Stir in the rice, then pine nuts or sunflower seeds and sultanas and add 150ml water. Cover the pan and simmer for 10-15 minutes, keeping the rice slightly underdone. Season with salt and pepper, then add herbs. Arrange the peppers in a saucepan that will hold them upright. Stuff the peppers up to their tops, then dip their tops in the flour to seal them. Return the peppers to the saucepan, add the tomato juice and paprika, the oil or butter and enough water to come a third of the way up their sides. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for half an hour or until the rice is tender.
Prepare the egg-and-lemon finishing sauce: blend 2 egg yolks, 2 tablespoons plain flour and 2 tablespoons of strained lemon juice, stir in 500ml of hot cooking liquid from the peppers and simmer for 5-6 minutes. Pour the sauce mixture around the peppers in the pan and simmer for one to two minutes without stirring.
Serve warm, rather than hot. Most people won't want to eat the pepper skin, so they should leave it on the side of their plates.
! Michael Bateman was named National Food Writer of the Year 1995, in a competition organised by the New Zealand Lamb Promotion Council. His article 'Bonsai Cuisine', which was published in the Sunday Review'on 9 July 1995, was praised by the judges for its flair, originality and clarity.