Want to live to be 100? In a remote area of the Balkans, many do - and it may be something in the yoghurt. Michael Bateman on the world's healthiest cuisine

THE BALKAN diet is not about to replace the Mediterranean diet. No, it is not. After all, who wants to live to be 100? In one particular district of Bulgaria, though, plenty of people do. There, centenarians are 250 times more common than in the US, and the theory is that it's to do with the food - especially yoghurt.

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.


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.


Serves 6-7

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.


Serves 6

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)

25g/1oz sultanas

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.


Serves 4

4 medium peppers, about 750g/112lbs in total

plain flour

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there