Rebekka Schön. co-worker in the project “Tastes of Danube”, made an online- interview with Tamara Ognjevic, MA, director & cofounder of Artis Center, vice president of National Committee of International Council of Museums (ICOM)
Click on the picture to see it bigger!
Mrs. Ognjevic, as an important member of the Artis Center Belgrade, could you introduce us into your occupation and the impacts on society that are aimed to be accomplished through your activity? How is it possible to connect the domains ‘art’, ‘gastronomy’ and ‘heritage’ within one work field?
I am primarily an art historian, an expert in iconography and symbolism. At the same time, I spent a large part of my career as a professional journalist. A decade ago, I specialized in the field of PR with a special focus on arts and heritage. I am the author of dozens of scientific papers, essays and books in the field of art history, gastronomy and heritage of Serbia. When in 2009 I founded Artis Center with my colleagues we primarily wanted to contribute to a better presentation and understanding of the heritage, and secondly, to organize exhibitions and do the research projects.
Gastronomy came into my focus thanks to art. I was intrigued to find out if food and banquets painted in the past are idealized images or realistic illustrations of the lifestyle of our ancestors. Generally, gastronomy is directly or indirectly related to science and art. Finally, since the 17th century the French have been writing numerous books and articles on the subject. They are joined in their effort by equally serious scientific elite from around the world nowadays. Following that path, my colleagues from Artis Center professional team and I produced numerous research papers, publications, lectures, exhibitions, and special programs in the field of cultural and creative tourism. We contributed to a better understanding of a traditional diet in Serbia and gave a number of ideas and advice to culinary chiefs and people who create tourism programs, as well as to the experts dealing with intangible heritage and its protection. Also, we have created a synthetic scientific method that significantly contributes to an objective research of multiple complex subjects related to food and dining in the past. Denominated Gastronomic Heritology or, in short, Gastroheritology, it was incorporated in the 2014 Barcelona Declaration that was created as a kind of statement of scientific conference organized by UNESCO UNITWIN.
You have successfully accomplished the project “Living the Past – Serbian Medieval Gastronomy”, which, for instance, resulted in the exhibition “The Feats/Le Banquet”, currently exhibited in Paris. What are the objectives and results of this project, what methods did you apply?
I must correct you slightly. “Living the Past” is the project that is still going on. We did a great deal of research, but there is still much more to do. We are dealing with several hundred years of the one of the most interesting periods in the history of Serbia. The period that has been idealized very often and even more misinterpreted due to lack of knowledge in the field of so-called history of private life in which gastronomy makes an extremely important segment. The exhibition “The Feast”, which was exhibited in Paris in the spring this year, is only the first exhibiting phase of our project. We plan at least four different exhibitions. Before Paris “The Feast” was exhibited in the Gallery of Science and Technology of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in 2014. It attracted a great deal of attention of the audience both in Serbia and in France, and we are especially proud of the fact that “The Feast” represents a very successful and interesting combination of science and art. We invited a group of contemporary artists to create applied and fine art objects inspired by medieval aesthetics and related to gastronomy. Thus, we acquired an original collection of objects made of glass, ceramics, silk and other fine materials as an integral part of the exhibition “The Feast” and consequently, of the “Living the Past” project.
We apply gastroheritology methods in our research process, which means that we combine the methods of art history, history, archaeology, anthropology, ethnology, literature history, medical forensics and related scientific disciplines plus experimental reconstructions which represent added value to the gastroheritology. In fact, when all available resources and archaeological materials are thoroughly explored, experimental reconstructions are a logical next step that gives us a clear picture of the food preparation processes in the past. Dealing with gastronomy heritage without an encounter with its “fourth dimension” – the taste, is like forgetting to season the meal prepared with so much knowledge and passion.
You are now particularly focusing on the themes of gastronomy and culture of dining in Serbia of the New Age. How would you describe the approach, the main aims and the focus of the research project? How does it approach the current living environment in Serbia?
At the time when in Western Europe a historical period known as the Renaissance began, the medieval Serbian lands were under the Turkish rule. Slavery, which lasted for hundreds of years, changed the whole structure and way of life of the Serbian society, especially in terms of food and the culture of dining. When Serbia was liberated in the early 19th century, a complex process of a transfer from an oriental lifestyle towards the then new European values resulted in an extraordinary synthesis especially affecting the eating habits of the Serbs. I think it will not sound pretentious if I say that few European countries have experienced such a complex social and lifestyle processes that are largely present in our culture even today. Investigation of these processes is a great challenge for me personally, with full support of Artis expert team that is also eager to find out what is the true story behind that. We are applying the gastroheritology methods because that is the only way to get the widest possible picture of the process in question. I can proudly say that we have a great team of collaborators from museums and similar institutions from all around the country and also highly respected consultants from Turkey, Italy, Hungary and the region. Our findings may be important and interesting to the modern Serbian society. In Serbia we often ask ourselves about the origin of ingredients and dishes, recipes and cooking techniques, and even more often we question the authenticity of any specialty of the Serbian gastronomy, coping with the dilemma of gastronomy heritage that could fit into a desired national framework.
In 2014, the Artis Center conducted an experimental reconstruction of an interesting crusaders pastry known as “panforte” (mighty bread in Italian) and their influence on the development of comestible goods. To what extend and in what way did you come over bread, wine and herbs, as staple food in the Danube region?
The Crusaders’ “panforte” is much more than a pastry. It is a kind of soldiers’ meal designed for long, exhausting military campaigns. It was interesting for Artis research team as the first example in history of the use of an extremely expensive sugar in European delicacies. Crusaders are very important for the European gastronomy heritage as sugar stakeholders in the Middle Ages. It was a very lucrative business bringing them a fortune. Of course, the Danube is essential in all those stories, as an important waterway with a large number of cities and markets on its banks. Belgrade, Novi Sad, Sremski Karlovci and Smederevo are those big and rich towns in Serbia. Bread is of utmost importance in the Danube culinary narrative. When it comes to wine and herbs I have a little concern. Apart from the Greeks and Romans in ancient times, throughout the Middle Ages, and even later, wine was a beverage of the social elite. Until the late Middle Ages in Serbia, it was mostly an expensive, imported item and wine-making was mainly reduced to monasteries. During the Turkish occupation, we completely neglected wine production. Nowadays, Serbian people drink more beer and rakiya than wine, although we have almost 400 small and large wineries and the regions such as Fruška Gora Negotin, Smederevo, Oplenac and Aleksandrovac, just to name a few, that have been denominated wine regions. I have a particular concern when it comes to herbs, because the knowledge of herbs in the past was reserved for a very small group of people, usually educated monks who used herbs rather for medical than gastronomic purposes. However, when talking about the project “Tastes of Danube” I was a little bit surprised with actual lack of beer and fish as subjects of interest since these two elements were far more consumed on the banks of the Danube in the past than wine and herbs. In 2013, we organized an experimental reconstruction of Neolithic beer in cooperation with our colleagues from Belgrade City Museum. Artis Center expert team member Ksenija Borojević, PhD, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, USA, conducted this project with the assistance of beer technologists from Belgrade’s “Cabinet” and “Beer Masters” breweries. Neolithic beer was a common beverage of the inhabitants of Vinča around 6,000 BC. Let me remind you that it was one of the most developed civilizations in prehistoric Europe and their settlement was located on the Danube near Belgrade.
From a historical point of view, could you identify a decisive role and impact of the river Danube in the field of comestible goods in the Danube region? How would you describe it?
Your question demands a complex answer, actually, an entire study but I will try to answer it as simple as possible. Words are not enough to explain the significance of the Danube in European history. We often forget that people in the past used waterways more than any other means of transport. Roads were unsafe and dangerous for the travelers and their goods. Rivers that one could navigate meant everything: communication, trade, fertile land, irrigation, food. They meant life. I am fully convinced that the history of Europe and especially that of the people who were lucky enough to live near the Danube, would have been completely different without the Danube.
Bread in Serbia – a staple food that has developed over time and was influenced by different factors. In which way would you, from a scientific perspective, describe the historical, geographical impact and the influences of the different civilizations and ethnic groups in Serbia on the bread baking processes, the significance of and the symbolism behind bread?
First of all, I must say that this is a very complex issue. The territory of Serbia is practically a part of what we know to be a cradle of civilization. The first organized human communities on the territory of Serbia date back to 7,000 years BC at Lepenski Vir on the Danube. It was the culture whose diet was dominated by bread, cereals and fish. Thousand years later, again on the Danube, there was a well developed Vinča civilization as I have already mentioned. And again, this was a culture of bread. Two years ago, our colleague Ana Djurić from the Department of Archaeology at Belgrade University reconstructed a Neolithic bread oven at Vinča archaeological site in the vicinity of Belgrade and baked bread very similar to that baked by prehistoric Vinča women so many centuries ago. Serbia has always been an important crossroads of three continents, and each nation that resided in this area for a shorter or longer period brought something of their own in respect of bread tradition. Some of those practices are still part of everyday life, while some have disappeared in the meantime. Although the Romans had long been on the Danube limes (border), and our colleagues from Viminacium Scientific and Visitor Center near Požarevac demonstrate baking of the Roman ritual breads, this type of bread is not any longer part of our foodscape. In principle, bread that we eat, especially that made at home and in local bakeries is most similar to medieval flat bread called “pogača” in Serbian. The Turks brought us “somun” bread and a variety of pies and pastries made of sweet bread dough. Oriental heritage in Serbia also acquired a number of local culinary interpretations. We don’t use black sesame and other spices typical for traditional Turkish bakery and our version of “somun”, “baklava” or a pie is different than the typical one in Istanbul. Also, we love to eat “proya” – corn bread and we prefer it to so-called integral breads baked of a variety of whole grains. Everyone is aware that the latter is healthier, but the power of habit can be truly miraculous. As all other people whose culture is dominated by bread, we also show great respect to bread. Bread may symbolize divinity in special, religious circumstances. In Serbia, there are a number of rituals and ritual breads intended for various purposes and each of them is connected with certain beliefs and even taboos. There is particularly important ritual bread prepared for Serbian Slava – Patron Saint Day, an authentic festivity that was recently protected by UNESCO as a form of intangible heritage of importance to the overall human civilization. Serbian Slava bread is so complex in its decoration and symbolism that it has been traditionally known as a cake rather than bread. It has the function of sacrificial bread and symbolizes prosperity of a family and home in which it is baked. As I have already said, this is a very complex question and deserves a serious study involving a team of experts.
 Serbian brandy distilled from fruits, primarily of plums.