"Macedonian Dish" The National Cuisine of Yugoslavia
One of these dishes is tavce gravce, Macedonia’s national plate, nuances of which pervade all of the former Yugoslav countries under different names, including pasulj, prebranac and grah. Put simply, tavce gravce is baked beans with the twist of slightly spicy peppers, onions, fresh tomatoes and the option of a very un-Orthodox addition of smoked meats. Pork (pancetta or smoked ribs) is a favorite addition, so in the name of pushing flavor as far as it will go, we’ve opted to dunk a little chorizo in our stew and we don’t think we’ll be regretting that decision.
A bean stew like this is a distinctly Balkan dish that can be found as far afield from Skopje as Croatia and the Greek islands. Macedonia, like the rest of the region, was under Ottoman rule for around 500 years, and the cultural crossover that occurred during that time, between the Turks and their conquered territories, as well as between the various Balkan countries themselves, created a regional cuisine that features echoes of certain foods from Istanbul to Belgrade and from Skopje to Thessaloniki and Tirana.
Tavce gravce literally means ‘beans cooked in a pan’, the ‘pan’ part coming from the Turkish word, ‘tava’. The name harks back to the legacy of food preparation in the area that revolved around open flames, with grilled meats yoking the tradition of social cook-ups – cuts of pork grilling over open coals, and stews bubbling for hours, days in clay pots and dutch ovens. We can only imagine that this bean crock started life in a pan over an open fire and was refined into a baked clay pot as the advantages of the latter method became clear, and clay pots were as numerous as the heads of Briareus.
It’s no coincidence that Macedonia’s national dish is stewed in ceramics since clay pots have traditionally been one of the country’s most ubiquitous products. Veles, town in the center of the country, and Vranestica to the west, were historically significant hubs for clay pot production. The tradition flourished until the 1980s when the opening of a railroad brought with it trade in manufactured kitchen goods that disrupted the ceramics business in the area.
However, there has been resurgence in recent times, when, after being laid off from factories that were disenfranchised by the Balkan upheavals at the end of the nineties, many former ceramic artisans have returned to their family’s trade in order to eke out a living. It means that traditional earthenware is making a comeback, though the threat of cheaply-produced Chinese alternatives still looms over the potters’ wheels.
About the Recipe
Any Macedonian will tell you that the secret to a good tavce gravce is in the beans. In Macedonia, premium white beans for the dish are sourced from the northwestern town of Tetovo, but they can be replaced with canellini beans, great northern beans, or even butter beans.