I don’t eat much fruit but when I do two of my favorite fruits to nibble on include crunchy apples - a variety known as Honeycrisp being my new favorite, and blueberries which I can eat by the bucket. When I was a small child, wild blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and mulberries were found in the thousands in the bushes and hedges which lined the long narrow street that led to my grandfather’s home. In the summer, my cousins and I would pick them at leisure, often eating the fruit fresh straight from the vine and enjoying its succulent flavor after a long walk home in the burning sun. These are among the best memories of childhood for me. The farm on which my grandparents lived was surrounded by fruit trees which my grandfather and his father before him had planted. I knew all them by heart. There was the fig tree which provided shade and relief right below the front porch veranda, the walnut tree planted by my grandmother Ana almost 40 years ago further down the road and the apricot tree which stood by the side of the house for as long as anyone could remember and which was destroyed by a terrible thunderstorm in the summer of 1995. Springtime was always a favorite moment of the year because the flowers of these fruit trees and bushes would blossom beautifully. In summer, the cycle of picking the raspberries and blueberries which grew by the side of the road was met with happiness and joy, because the more we picked the more we could sell to local merchants and pocket some much-needed spending money in return.
My mother Mila had always told me that when she was a student in the 1960s, much of her spending money would come from picking these delicious berries that were found in abundance on her parents’ property. She and her cousins would pick blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries by the thousands and sell them to middlemen who would then re-sell them to the large Yugoslav food production houses such as Fructal d.o.o. based in Slovenia. When we moved abroad, I missed the taste of the seasonal fruit from back home and began developing allergies, especially to strawberries because, in the west, especially Canada and the US, all of these fruits are sprayed with pesticides, producing an airborne reaction in me.
Returning to Montenegro is always a huge joy because if there is one fruit that I closely identify Montenegro, it’s the blueberry, which in Montenegro is actually known as a ‘bilberry’ (or a smaller variation of the blueberry). You might be surprised to know this, but Montenegro is one of the few places on earth to boast the world’s largest cover of naturally growing wild blueberries. Blueberries are one of those fruits which are high in anti-oxidants and are cherished for their medicinal qualities. How many times have you been sick and been told by the doctor to consume blueberry or cranberry juice? It’s because its packed with vitamin C and acts to safeguard the immune system from diseases and viruses. During WWII, British Naval doctors would prescribe naval fighter pilots blueberry juice as a means to strengthen eye-sight, apparently believing that consuming blueberries reduced the risk of glaucoma, and Montenegrin blueberries were considered among the worlds best. The blueberry yield is centered around the Prokletije mountain massif and culminates in the town of Plav, which hosts an annual blueberry festival every year in July. In the area in and around Plav, the blueberry harvest is a significant contributor to the town and local regions economy. The local population harvest blueberries both for their own consumption, as well as for foreign sales.
The 10-day festival is known all over Montenegro as ‘The Plav Days of Blueberries’ and in recent years the festival is noted by the parade of local youth who don colorful costumes representing the Plav region, but also indicative of other areas of the former Yugoslavia where their families have settled as guest workers. I attended the festival only once in my life, in 2008, and at the time noticed that it had grown significantly from the small, humble rural festival I had always heard it to be. It now included a diverse program of cultural events, poetry recitals, literary readings, competitions, a visual art exhibition, sporting displays, musical performances, exhibitions of local crafts from the region and beyond, and of course the much sought-after blueberry picking competition. This last competition earned the prize winner a trophy for picking the most blueberries per bushel in a single day. There were even a few skilled ‘majstori’ who were making sculptures and artworks out of blueberries, the kind you’d see in rural American towns during butter and ice festivals. One of the best things about the festival is the sheer number of locals willing to share a taste of their own homemade blueberry specialties. I consumed blueberry cordial, blueberry infused rakija, blueberry wine and even blueberry vinegar and eau-de-vie. By the end of a long day, I was all but blueberried-out but that’s when the cakes and confectionaries began coming out on display, and, well let’s face it, who in their right mind says now to blueberry cakes and pies? Certainly not me, that’s for sure. I nibbled on and tried as many of these local delights as I could, most likely because a day of hiking had given me hunger pangs but also because everything looked so damn good.
I had a really great time and discovered something about the Plav region I hadn’t known before. First and foremost, it’s a town that represents a true melting pot in as far as Montenegro is concerned. Despite the fact that it’s located far away from Podgorica and the tourist hordes of the coast, its ethnic makeup is Slavic, Bosniak and Albanian, and from what I could see at least, the three groups lived largely in harmony with one another. Growing up abroad, it was important for me to see multiculturalism in a place as tiny as Montenegro, and in Plav it was on full display, with people enjoying one another’s company and reveling in the towns blueberry bounty of which they were tremendously and rightfully proud of.
The Plav Days of Blueberries Festival is a free cultural manifestation that attracts people from all over Montenegro as well as neighboring countries. There is much to see and do and if you decide to visit, it’s a great idea to combine the festival with a sight-seeing tour of the Prokletije region and the area surrounding Plav for its fantastic hiking and walking opportunities. In addition to blueberries, the region boasts some of the rarest and endemic medicinal plants and flora and fauna to be found anywhere in the Balkans, making it a nature lovers paradise.