It took almost two centuries for kačamak to grow from the most unfortunate dining tables to the prestigious places on the menus of the national cuisine. It is believed that this dish was created in the north of Montenegro, shortly after the bishop Petar I Petrović Njegoš brought potatoes to his people on his way back from Russia in 1786.
The method of preparation has not changed thus far in almost any detail - it is made of wheat (less commonly buckwheat) flour, potatoes, cheese and kajmak (white cream). Perhaps, because of this, the tourists can’t resist to try it, although the price sometimes "follows" the number of calories.
In the past, it was cooked daily and only "for the family", before the guests were offered more refined dishes and expensive meals. Today, despite the fact that according to modern standards it cannot be classified as "healthy food", it’s the pride of the most famous restaurants at ski centers in the country.
Whether it's served as a warm appetizer or a main meal, it's an inevitable part of many business lunches and even romantic dinners.
Kačamak, claimed by chroniclers of the local tradition, is the authentic meal in the areas of Bjelasica, Sinjajevina, Durmitor and part of Vasojevići. In each of these regions, they will have you convinced that they "invented" it, and that is where it is prepared in the best and genuine way.
Despite this, in all places, you will get an identical recipe with small variations in the amount of flour and potato or the length of cooking. In some places they will advise you to drink a glass of brandy before eating kačamak, and in others they'll say that alcohol should not be "mixed" with this type of food.
In any case, you will be told everywhere that a woman can’t be a good housewife if she cannot cook it, and since it tells a story of poor groceries harvested from the foods that were in every mountainous household, everyone will, without distinction, deny that their ancestors ate it almost every day.
"I do not know anywhere else in Montenegro or the region where such a meal is prepared. It is not known exactly where in the north it was first made and several traveling writers mention it as an authentic, highlander meal over a hundred years ago. But kačamak was probably created a decade later after the potato came to Montenegro. The first detailed description of the preparation of this meal was found in the works of the priest, publicist and ethnographer Sekula Dobričanin. He described the way they prepared it the same way as in the restaurants. The name of this dish varies from one end to another, "explains Branislav Jeknić, director of the Cultural Center in Kolašin, who is studying the tradition of North Montenegro.
The secret is in the marketing and good cheese...
The dish, which, especially in the last decades, has become well-known by good marketing far away from the towns in the north, was designed for many years in high scarcity. In the mountain pastures, there was a lack of cheese, kajmak and potatoes. Trying to feed themselves, due to the very modest possibilities, many would combine foods to create several more dishes similar to this.
"We tried to use everything because there was very little of everything in these areas that were the most suitable for livestock breeding. Even flour was difficult to procure and especially wheat - we simply did not have enough, except for the wealthier people. By adding potatoes that grew well in the north, this was probably a way to save on wheat flour, and to make sure the dish was enough for the whole family," notes Branislav.
The taste of kačamak depends on the quality of each ingredient individually, but also on the way you cook it, the length you cook it, and the side dishes you serve with it. Dragica Rakočevic from the Biočinović village has prepared the dish for decades. She was taught, she says, from the older women in the family. She explains why this type of kačamak is also called "beated" or "bumped". In order to combine flour and potatoes, they need to be "beaten" by a wooden tool called kachamar.
"Although many argue that it takes a lot of skills to cook a good kačamak, it's one of the simplest jobs for me. Of course, experience is important, and there are several "tricks" for easier and more successful preparation. First of all, you need to make sure that the flour and potatoes, but also the smoked cheese and cream are quality and homemade. The preparation of kačamak takes about an hour. The best is from the yellow potato flour, cheese and young kajmak. Although it is traditionally served with sour milk, it is excellent with all types of salad," Dragica explains while cooking a soup.
It is believed that the "whipping" of kačamak requires male strength. For this reason, the travel writers, describing the preparation of kačamak, emphasized that this is probably the only preparation where men in the north of Montenegro are involved. While holding a big pot with one hand, and a hammer in the other hand, Dragica said that she never allows her husband or son to interfere with that job.
The power does not matter, but the appearance and shape of the hammer (kachamar) does. Well, making a kachamar is, in fact, a male job. Though it seems to be just a piece of polished wood that extends at the bottom, it's not that simple. Dragica's husband Rajo explains that it is best to make it from ash or other "pure" tree species.
"And it should not be too big, especially if you're upset with your wife," says Rajo.
The thread of cheese makes the dish better..
"As much as the taste is important so is the appearance of the meal. So the mixture does not melt completely and that you can see it rising, the cheese should be half fat, and the cream (kajmak) needs to be fresh. The melted cheese stretches into the "threads" that are the decoration of the meal. The ratio of the quantities of all ingredients is also important, but given that tastes vary and they are different, it is important to fix the true "density," says Dragica. She claims that superior taste is achieved only by cooking on a wooden stove. Gas or electricity, they say, changes the specificity of the food.
Nutritionists have no words of praise for the combination of potatoes, white flour and several fatty dairy products in the same meal. On the other hand, highlanders who boast hard physical work as their way of life, consider that this meal, like no other, guarantees hours of satisfaction and lots of energy.
For this reason, kačamak has also been prepared for mowing work in the past. At that time when the working day meant 12 hours of work on the meadow or field, kačamak, like the cicvara, was served for breakfast too. Usually, it stood on a table in a large pot or a wooden bowl where hungry eaters grabbed it with spoons.
It seems that until now, the only change is the pots used to bring the dish to the table. The Kolašin restaurateurs were not motivated to experiment with this authentic northern dish and combine it with their creative cuisine.
Like, for example, famous Japanese fusion kitchen, Mexican chilli to carrots in vegetable varieties or salad from octopus in jelly, where instead of red onion they used chopped nectarines... Because if you can make soup from apples and horseradish; if you can have peppers stuffed with cheese and eggs, why it is not possible to make red peppers or sarma’s filled with kačamak, no matter how foolish it sounds to somebody?
Jasmin Biševac, a chef at one of the best local hotels, was quite surprised by the question of whether the kačamak is compatible with other foods.
"We never tried it and I think it's impossible to connect it with other meals from here or other places. We serve it only with sour milk."
The owner of the restaurant Dragomir Reljić - Brile is of the same opinion. He thinks that the creamy kačamak itself is enough of a gourmet speciality.
"In this form, it is incompatible with other foods or meals. It happened that we served it as a warm appetizer, but it is mostly the main dish and I do not see a way to combine it differently because it contains both cheese and cream, potatoes and flour, so it's already a complex combination itself. It's very caloric, and tourists want to try this kind of traditional dish, as it has been around for hundreds of years. People from other places welcomed only ours and we should be proud of that."
Since last year in Kolašin, the pride and respect for the kačamak as a local brand was also demonstrated by organizing a competitive event that should become a tradition. In the city square every summer, a dozen women compete in the skill of making this meal. It is an attraction for tourists and an opportunity to learn for less experienced homemakers. The event attracted significantly more visitors than the organized theatre performances and concerts.
"Overrated" or not, kačamak is one of the rare products of the north of Montenegro, which has remained unchanged for centuries and is still present and interesting for those who have grown up with a more rich cuisine. This dish will remain an important gastronomic treat for caterers for years to come.
"It's not just food," the local patriots claim. The story of the “kachamar” (hammer) is an inseparable part of the mountain tradition and a symbol of decades spent in an honorable battle with poverty.
Kačamak, a centuries-old recipe
Ingredients: 3 kg potatoes, 0.5 kg of wheat flour, half-fat "leafy" cheese, young kajmak.
Preparation: The purified potatoes are cooked for 30 minutes. Then flour is added to the top and cooked for another 20 minutes on low heat. After that, the mixture is "beaten" by a hammer, until it is completely combined, and it looks like small potato ball. In the second pot, cheese and cream (150 g kajmak and 250 g cheese for one person) are melted. When the kačamak is well "beaten", a melted compound is poured over it. It is eaten with sour milk or fresh vegetables.
Text by Dragana Scepanovic, read more at Vijesti