The 20th annual Leskovac Barbecue Week reaffirmed itself this year as one of Southeast Europe's major culinary events, with over half a million domestic and foreign guests visiting Serbia's unofficial barbecue capital in the south of the country from 31 August to 6 September.
According to the festival's organizer the Leskovac Tourist Organization (TOL), festival goers ate altogether 40 tons of meat. On the menu were Leskovac's prized meat dishes, Ćevapi and pljeskavice, as well as uštipci desserts, several tons of pork and lamb roast, and rivers of beer and špricer (dry white wine with soda water).
"This was the mostly neatly organized and most visited Barbecue Week of all times. A big surprise was the large number of foreigners, around 20,000. We are accustomed to having guests from the former Yugoslav area, but this time we had also groups of Greeks, Germans, French, Italians, Danes and Belgians... Word of good food travels far," TOL director Žikica Nestorović tells proudly.
Barbecue lovers had the opportunity to participate in and watch numerous culinary contests, among which the festival's traditional central event - the making of a gigantic Serbian hamburger, called pljeskavica. It took place in front of an elevated podium where a brass band played as cooks were cheered on by a crowd of around 10,000 people.
Cooks Bojan Cvetković and Ljubiša Djordjević from Leskovac's MB-016 restaurant succeeded in fashioning and grilling a 48 kilogram pljeskavica, beating their own record from last year by four kilograms.
"No sight of those guys from Guinness again," Bojan jokes as he wipes the sweat from his brow.
The gigantic pljeskavica was eventually split up among the crowd. Brian O'Neil, a Scotsman travelling in the company of several of his compatriots, was lucky to grab a piece.
"Mhm, it's really tasty, but hot, I burnt myself," Brian says. An hour before that, Brian feasted on pljeskavica and uštipci, with pickled Leskovac paprikas, in a street cafe.
"I have not eaten anything tastier. It is just astounding how delicious pljeskavice are, it’s silly to compare them to a hamburger," says Brian.
Greek Stamatis Mavronas came to the event from Corfu. His mind was set on getting his hands on the recipe for Leskovac's famous mućkalica (a goulash made of different bits of meat and spices).
"I talked with several cooks; all of them were polite, but none of them were willing to reveal the secret of the mućkalica. I am not leaving until I get the recipe, even if I have to stay a week, says the adamant Greek, who has a hotel construction job waiting for him in Cyprus.
Despite the festival's popularity, the townspeople of Leskovac are somewhat envious of the village of Guča in central Serbia, which hosts the Guča Brass Band Festival every year in August. Leskovac has no lack of its own brass bands throughout the festival. Bands will pull up next to guests in the street and play popular tunes, in an intoxicating mix of music and smoke from sizzling barbecues.
Barbecue Week starts and ends with a parade of majorettes and trumpeters spearheaded by the festival's mascots - Roštiljko and Roštiljka ("Barbecue man and Barbecue woman") including a fireworks display and an international carnival on the festival's closing evening. To the joy of children and their parents and grandparents, this year's parade gathered 1,000 participants clad in different attire and posing as clowns, princes and princesses, dancing Brazilians, Tibetan and Indian women, as well as dodole and koledari – traditional local rain dancers.
Days of Paprika is a side event welcomed by those looking to slow down for a while from the hustle and bustle of the main event in downtown Leskovac. It is a contest in which participants try to win by being the fastest in stringing peppers. The event is staged in the nearby village of Lakosnica, where a kind of hot pepper endemic to the region is ground up and mashed into a spice. This area supplies the entire Serbia with the hot paprika, and the peppers are strung on a rope and left to dry for at least a month before being treated. This year, the winner of the pepper stringing contest was local villager Suzana Cakić, who took the first place with a time of 3.2 minutes and a total score of 100 peppers.