Njeguši, The Rough Heart of Montenegrin Food

To get to Njeguši from Kotor, you have to drive about an hour.  It's funny, because you can see Kotor right from the outer limits of Njeguši - it's somewhere down below, several thousand feet in the low distance.
This is a mountain town, in a high patch of somewhat flat land just behind the precipitous rock wall that plunges to the sea.  It's not a big place - there are just a few houses in a clump, surrounded by close-cropped fields and rough stone.  But this is the heart of Montenegrin food, a place where hundreds of ham hocks and cheese rinds sit in cool cellars, safe from the summer heat.  The local pršut (which others might call prosciutto) and semi-hard cheese are gustatory experiences, the point of food travel in Montenegro.
Montenegro, like any new country, has had to define what its national foods will be.  The problem is, this is a small place with lots of influence from its neighbors, decades of rule by Serbia, and cuisine that looks... familiar.  There are lots of the same grilled squids and blitva plates that we've seen before in Croatia; bureks, which every Balkan country eats; roasted octopus; cuttlefish risotto; lamb; ajvar, which is also popular in Macedonia and Serbia; and cured meats and cheeses. Cured meats and cheese shouldn't be considered a Montenegrin specialty - more a European specialty in general.  But the pride that this country takes in Njeguši's products is immense.
The town itself is a pretty, high-up place in a mountain bowl.  Around it is the protected wilderness of Lovćen National Park, where cattle roam the steep slopes and wildflowers peek out from crags.  The road up from the coast is a long tangle of switchbacks and hairpins, with views down over the bay and out to the Adriatic.  It's a narrow lane - not really wide enough for two-way traffic.  There's lots of backing up and careful maneuvering, lots of cars stopped to take pictures, frustrated truck drivers.
At the Kotor market, far below, we had seen wheels and wheels of the cheese and bought some for ourselves.  The women who sold us our wedges pointed out different types - sheep, cow's milk, mixes, new cheeses, washed-rinds.  The most famous type of Njeguški sir ("сир" in Serbo-Croat, meaning cheese) is jarred up, sliced, in olive oil - the oil helps protect it from the awful summer heat.  We didn't buy any of that particular type, deciding to save our arteries the affront of cheese in oil, but have tasted it.  It's not bad.  Very much like most semi-firm cheeses.
During our meander through Njeguši, we were invited into one couple's smoke house.  The air was heavily smokey, the rafters were black.  Behind the hams, brown paper had been hung and grease-spotted.  It was cooler there, and the man who showed it to us was proud.  He spoke only Serbian, so we couldn't talk much, but we got the gist.
Driving in Njeguši is like a slow trip through a specialty foods store.  Signs at every house point to cheese and pršut, honey and rakija.  Men and women sit outside, in what shade they can find, and wave invitingly at passing tourists.  There are a few restaurants dishing up heavy, mountain food - lamb is popular - and lots of parked cars with foreign plates.
The cheese is good, with a flavor range that travels from mild to tangy without ever reaching strong.  It's tasty, alpine style cheese, aged only a little and tasting more of grass than barnyard. We've liked the sheep's milk cheeses the best (the one on the right was a delicious example), but the cow's milk varieties are great too - generally milder though, and softer.
The pršut is also great.  The Montenegrins like it thick-sliced and strong-flavored.  It's very smokey and woody, with salty channels of fat and a soft consistency.  This isn't the harder, tougher stuff you might find packaged in a supermarket, it's actually pretty delicate in consistency.
Montenegrin food is much like other cuisines in that the country's chefs love to stuff and smother dishes with cheese and ham.  On menus, one might find that the english translation for a specialty is such-and-such "cordon bleu," while the Montenegrin title calls the same thing "Njeguški."  Even if the cheese and ham is from the supermarket, the preparation and the sentiment is from the mountains.
Before we left Njeguši, we bought a few more things - a jar of dark honey that, when we tasted it, seemed to be flavored somehow with fruit; and a small plastic bottle (unmarked) of vile, very strong, root-flavored rakija.  The liquor tasted a lot like a headache, but was fine with some blueberries and lime.  The honey is a strange complement to coffee, but is good on toast.  Neither product would have us coming back to town anytime soon, but they're not really the point - only some jars and flasks to fill in the margins of the flesh and dairy.
There is a story, perhaps untrue, about a famous sculptor who, in the 1950's, was commissioned to create some sculptures for Lovćen National Park.  Passing Njeguši on his way up and down from the site, he fell in love with the town and its flavors.  When he negotiated his payment with the government, he asked not to be paid in money - but in Njeguški pršut and sir.
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