Berries & Cherries

It was impossible not to notice the cherries at Kalenić market in Belgrade. It was like all of our thought bubbles that read "It feels like summer," were manifested right there in the red, shiny, orbs. We wanted to buy some, we really did, but we'd just eaten about a pound of fried fish from the market's fishmonger and were already carrying the ingredients we'd just gathered for our tomato paprika Kačamak. Everyone else was buying cherries in bulk along with slender, pointed strawberries. A little helper, not much higher than the market table, embezzled berries from her family stock when no one was looking. Women in kerchiefs and men in coke-bottle glasses manned the stations. Shriveled, wrinkled and old, their presence made the fruit look even riper.
Many of the fruit vendors were obviously from outside the city, their shoes still had countryside clinging to them. Behind most of the market stands were the carts, suitcases and boxes employed to make the trip in. They say that if you don't have a chance to make it outside Belgrade, Kalenić Pijaca can give you a glimpse of life in the country. Sure enough, when we left Belgrade and headed for Smederevo, the scenes from the market stretched out before us. We had no idea we were driving through "Little California" - Zaklopača - one of the most famous fruit producing regions in Serbia.
Orchards stretched out on either side of the road. Tractors putted behind us. One of the few non-farm-vehicles we saw was a black BMW. A ladder stuck out the back, in amongst a trunkload of cherries. Ladders were propped up against trunks all over. People were hard at work. An absolutely ancient woman bent over a row of strawberries. I'm not convinced she'd be able to straighten up if she wanted to after a lifetime of working a patch like that. Cropland covers about two thirds of Serbia and even with three quarters of that land focusing on grains, fruit is still produced in massive quantities. In fact, one third of the world's raspberries come from here.
85% of cropland in Serbia is owned by private farms. So, you can count on hand-picked, insecticide free fruit grown by people who have been in tune with their land and their plants for generations. Along with their perfect microclimate, the villages around Zaklopača also have the Danube right there to their north. The Balkan fruit basket has been sending produce upriver to industrial Germany for centuries. Recently, the cherries and berries of Serbia are beginning to get more attention from big juice and frozen food companies. They're heartier varieties, more flavorful fruits, they freeze better and keep their flavor longer than a lot of the competition.
Plums are probably Serbia's most famous fruit, raspberries are definitely their most plentiful, but it's hard to argue with cherries and strawberries. In Belgrade, we'd told someone about going over to Kalenić market and they immediately asked, "Did you buy cherries?!?" I'm pretty sure I lied and said we had, embarrassed to have passed up such an obviously beautiful bounty and not wanting our decision to be any comment on the fruit's irresistibility. On the road, we were able to make up for it.
We parked and bought a kilo of each, cherries and strawberries. It was more than we needed, really, but the women shook away our pleas to stop adding more to the bag. The price was for a full kilo and they weren't going to short change us even one little pit. I mean, bit. We drove away happily weighed down and began to eat right away. We remarked on each one, sweet or sour, ripe or riper. Oo, I just got a good one. The corners of our roadmap were stained red by my fingers. It felt too early to be indulging in fruit like this. Only May? Spitting cherry pits out our open windows, we christened the roadside "Summer."
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