Pirot is a down at heels, dusty provincial town at the very ass end of Serbia, right on the southern border bracketed by what is the yet-to-be internationally recognized Republic of Kosovo and the Bulgarian version of a nation state. It was never on my bucket list of tourist attractions.
In the 1950’s Yugoslavia’s managed economy decided that what this depressed town needed was a tire manufacturing factory – and so Tigar Tyres [Preduzeće za proizvodnju guma Tigar Tyres d.o.o., Pirot] was born. Against all odds, Tigar prospered for it partnered with France’s Michelin for technology and know-how. Tigar, the Pirot upstart established an import facility for the North American market. Back in 1996 I spent a week in Pirot preparing witnesses for a trial to be held before an American judge and jury in Miami, Florida.
I drove south from Belgrade and admired the countryside on the way. The road passed through a dozen of small and medium sized tunnels clinging to hillsides with beautiful vistas overlooking a rushing river. Later I learned that I had travelled through the unique Sićevo Gorge [Sićevačka klisura] but that beauty stopped abruptly at Pirot’s outskirts. I did a drive by of the town and winced when I passed the town’s only hotel, dreading my week’s stay.
My arrival was warm and welcoming. After coffee and the compulsory local brandy, I was taken to my accommodations for the week. I ditched my modest VW rental and was to introduced to Boško, my personal driver and a gleaming black E320 Mercedes that was to be my ride. Boško was a piece of work: squat, square, ham handed, leather jacketed, bullet headed, sporting would you believe Tony Lama cowboy boots – a Bulgar masquerading as a Serb.
We headed out of town and up the Stara Planina [“Old Mountain”]. Within miles the road turned to a treacherous track of snow and ice with Boško controlling the Mercedes’ steering wheel, his ham hands now delicate surgical instruments. Miles up that mountain we skidded to a stop in front of an all-lit-up chalet – Tigar’s guest house, my home for the week.
The guest house reception area had a roaring fireplace and a sleek leather, brass and mahogany bar presided by an eager-to-please white mess jacketed waiter. While stretching my legs and reveling in the bar’s luxury another white jacketed gentleman introduced himself – Claude, a French Executive Chef, the advance man there to cater next week’s visit of Michelin executives.
With me the only guest Claude sat down and discussed my dinner menu. We went over what was available and what dishes would best complement each other. Soon I was sitting in the dining room enjoying a meal worthy of any three-star Michelin restaurant. The rest of my week was a repeat of that first night, a leisurely cocktail, a consultation on that day’s available flora and fauna, a leisurely meal and a good night’s sleep in fresh mountain air.
My mornings started with coffee, a fresh croissant and Boško’s arrival to drive me down the mountain to the Tigar factory. From the very first time I met him Boško’s cowboy boots intrigued me. So, one morning on the ride to town I asked “Boško, what’s with the cowboy boots?” I received a curt reply “I’m a rancher” in a tone and manner that brooked no further inquiry.
My schedule was to finish up that Monday leaving me time on Sunday to play tourist. Boško was given an itinerary of local sights – monasteries, crumbling forts and the like – that I was to visit. We were driving along the lush green banks of the Nišava River when Boško’s pride of place got the better of him. “That’s my ranch, right over there” he said.
All I could see was a couple of acres of green vegetation covered with white netting. “So, Boško what do you wrangle?” I asked. “Snails” he said and with that he was off to the races.
For the next hour we tromped through rows of pens containing hundreds of thousands of snails. I was given an erudite lecture on heliculture or what I would call snail farming. I don’t remember much of it except that once or twice a year at round-up time the snails would be collected, loaded onto trucks and sent on their way to France to be processed into “escargots”. Boško’s snail ranch gave him the God given right to sport genuine Tony Lama cowboy boots.
That evening I asked the Claude is he had any escargots in the larder. “Of course,” he said “we import them from France”.
Deyan Ranko Brashich is a contributor writing from New York. He is the author of Letters from America, Contrary Views and Dispatches. His contact and blog “Contrary Views” is at www.deyanbrashich.com